Using documentaries for research and public engagement

Lilongwe Water Works? A research documentary on the dynamics of water provisioning and access in informal settlements

Dr. Maria Rusca – a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow and Lecturer in Water and Development at our Geography Department at King’s College London – is the Principal Investigator of “Investigating Natural, Historical and Institutional Transformations in Cities (INHAbIT Cities)”, aiming at improving understandings of the dynamics of basic service provision in urban and suburban spaces in the global South. The project particularly investigates the relation between urban infrastructures, distribution of everyday risks and uneven conditions of access to water in Maputo (Mozambique) and Lilongwe (Malawi).

Maria believes that strong connection and commitment to a cause comes with inspiring stories; she has thus decided to engage with larger non-academic audiences and policy makers by disseminating INHAbIT’s research findings through a short documentary.  “Lilongwe Water Works?” tells the stories of women accessing or providing water where the formal utility provides water through public water kiosks (see picture).

In addition to using her documentary intitled “Lilongwe Water Works?” as part of the education curriculum of Water and Development at King’s College London, and Water Governance at IHE Delft, Maria returned to Lilongwe a few weeks ago to share her findings at various events she organised.

The documentary was projected at the Water User Association in one of the informal settlements, where some community members, water users, and contributors to the documentary were able to discover and discuss the final output; the same was done in an informal settlement’s school; another projection was done at the Lingadzi Hotel, with water stakeholders (the World Bank, UNICEF, the Ministry of Water, Lilongwe Water Board, the Economic Justice Network, Lilongwe City Council, WASAMA) and journalists (Zodiac, Reuters, AFP, Free Expression institute, Times Group, Capital Radio, Nyasa Times).

The most impressive moment for Maria was to see how the documentary was able to raise debates and even confrontations in ways she had never experienced before. During these debates, concerns were raised about the role of Water Users Associations: while on the one hand they are considered to be useful in ensuring water supply, they are also causing water to low-income areas to become increasingly expensive and often unaffordable (see referenced papers at the end of the post).

To watch the documentary:

WATCH ON VIMEOhttps://vimeo.com/240647554

DIRECTOR: Maria Rusca

YEAR: 2017

SYNOPSIS: The water utility in Lilongwe, capital city of Malawi, serves people living in low-income neighbourhoods through a system of water kiosks. The kiosks work like shops, which opening hours when people can go buy 20 litre buckets of water. This documentary tells the stories of the women and men that access water through the kiosks and those who are involved in running them. Their stories reveal both the successes and the failures of providing water through kiosks and call us to question whether this system can ensure the human right to water to the residents of Lilongwe’s peripheries and to others elsewhere in the world.

PRODUCER: Whales That Fly and Hyphen Media

FUNDING: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 656738

 

For related peer-reviewed papers:

  1. Tiwale S., Rusca M., Zwarteveen M., The power of pipes: mapping urban water inequities through the material properties of networked water infrastructures. The case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Water Alternatives, Water Alternatives 11(2): 314-335.
  2. Rusca, M., Schwartz K., Hadzovic, L., Ahlers R., (2015), Adapting Generic Models through Bricolage: Elite Capture of Water Users Associations in Peri-urban Lilongwe, European Journal of Development Research, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 777–792. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/ejdr.2014.58
  1. Rusca M., Alda Vidal C., Hordijk M., Kral N., Bathing without water, and other stories of everyday hygiene practices and risk perception in urban low-income areas: the case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Environment and Urbanisation, doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247817700291
  2. Alda Vidal C., Kooy M., Rusca M., (2018) Mapping operation and maintenance: an everyday urbanism analysis of inequalities within piped water supply in Lilongwe, Malawi,Urban Geography, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp. 104- 121 doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2017.1292664
  3. Rusca M. and Schwartz K., (2018) The Paradox of Cost Recovery in Heterogeneous Municipal Water Supply Systems: Ensuring Inclusiveness or Exacerbating Inequalities?Habitat International, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2017.03.002
  4. Sarpong Boakye-Ansah A., Ferrero G., Rusca M and van der Zaag P., (2016) Inequalities in microbial contamination of drinking water, supplies in urban areas: the case of Lilongwe, Malawi, Journal of Water and Health, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp. 851-863, doi: 10.2166/wh.2016.258 

For related blogs:

Are we paying enough attention to water quality? https://flows.hypotheses.org/686

Bathing without water https://flows.hypotheses.org/659

22 Reasons why collaborations fail: Lessons from water innovation research

New Research Output by Dr. James Porter: 22 Reasons why collaborations fail: Lessons from water innovation research

Research highlights:

  • Bold and inventive solutions are urgently needed to safeguard the future use of water.
  • Collaborative-innovations are increasingly championed but it’s often unclear what influences the success (or failure) of these efforts.
  • Using an international systematic literature review of empirical studies, we identify 22 key themes.
  • Yet the importance attributed to each theme, agreement amongst the studies reviewed, and compatibility of the themes, varies considerably.
  • We caution against the uncritical use of different themes and call on researchers and practitioners to recognise the darker side of water collaboration.

Recommended reference: Porter, J.J.; Birdi, K. (2018) 22 Reasons why collaborations fail: Lessons from water innovation research, Environmental Science & Policy, 89, 100-108.

The paper is freely available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2018.07.004

This research is first of a series of outputs produced as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC) TWENTY65 – Tailored Water Solutions for Positive Impact – Grand Challenge programme. The next research outputs will critically examine the themes identified here by comparing them with the first-hand experiences of those working in the UK water sector (e.g. water companies, suppliers, regulatory bodies, and research institutions).

Abstract: Bold and inventive solutions are urgently needed to safeguard the future use of water. In response, collaborative-innovation is increasingly championed. If stakeholders including water utilities, supply-chain companies, research institutions and local communities work together, share their experiences and pool ideas, meaningful change could happen, it’s argued. But effective collaboration is far from easy. For every incentive that drives collaboration forward, another barrier blocks its path. Whilst the literature offers many possible factors that influence the success (or failure) of collaborative-innovations, it remains unclear which factors are most important, where the highest agreement and disagreement exists, and if accommodating one factor creates problems for another. This is important because its not always practical, nor necessary, to apply everything from the academic literature. In this paper, we report findings from an international systematic literature review that brings together a range of studies that cross the water collaboration and water innovation divide. We identify 22 broad themes that are spread (unevenly) across the entire collaborative-innovation process; highlight how the level of attention given to each theme varies greatly; and where disagreement exists. Our research provides practical insights on how to create more effective collaborative-innovations in water and where future research should be directed.

Okavango 2018: Field trip in Botswana

King’s Water with colleagues from University of New South Wales and Arizona State University are currently in Botswana undertaking field activities with a PLuS Alliance support project on river sustainability of the Okavango basin.

Check live twitter from the field !

Joining the team this year is Georgia, a 2nd yr King’s Geography student:

“My name is Georgia Edwards, i’m a second year physical geography student. Since finding climate studies to be a highly relevant and diverse topic at A-Level, it has become my main academic focus as it is applicable to so many different fields.

Fieldwork is one of my favourite parts of the discipline, giving freedom to travel whilst demonstrating theory in reality. I have been lucky enough to work around the UK, in Morocco, Spain and now to Botswana.

This King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (KURF) is particularly exciting due to participation of academics and likeminded students from the US and Australia. They will lead research and give lectures in the Okavango Delta on different aspects of the environment and its inhabitants. This will allow me to gain more of an academic understanding of conservation and wildlife in the Delta.

Conservation of African wildlife has always been an interest of mine, which only grew after I visited the Meru game park in Kenya. I am hoping to be able to combine conservation and climatic factors into my IGS project. To work on how climate change could affect certain species of animals in the Okavango Delta, bringing a personal interest of mine into an academic field.”

 

See this video to find out what days in the field are like:

Undertaking research as PhD students in geographical studies of water: Reflexions on Positionality

This in the works blog post brings reflexions together on how to integrate issues of positionality when undertaking geographical research in water issues. This initiative stems from our experiences as young water researchers sharing field work experiences; we question how our (missed) encounters may affect the processes and outcomes of our research and explore the realm of our diverse backgrounds and field sites. Many experiences are shared between researchers on field sites, but rarely make it into papers or reports. We intend this post to encourage an open conversation with young researchers like us seeking to reflect on the impacts of positionalities on research. As qualitative researchers, we explore situations in which our positionalities have first affected access to respondents; how our positionalities affected the types of information we manage to retrieve; if our positionalities affect the way we understand collected data; overall, how would results have differed if the data were collected by a different individual?

Geography is probably not the least self-aware among the disciplines of the methodological and ethical trappings of power relations between the researcher-researched as well as the importance of acknowledging the researcher’s positionality in the field. Feminist Geographers deserve much of the credit for putting the ethical implications of the method in conducting research front and centre. Debates have been given space in journals that explore if a certain form of research, let’s say collaborative ethnography, fosters a less exploitative relation with the informant than quantitative survey-taking (McDowell, 1992; Pile, 1992). Feminist ethnographers, in sharing their intimate experiences of research, problematize this assumption and have highlighted how methodologies committed to a non-hierarchical engagement and the co-production of knowledge can still produce dependency and feelings of betrayal especially as the initial positions of power and privilege can be hard to surmount; as well as sympathetic engagements, be misconstrued as a promise of intervention (Stacey, 1988; Patai, 1991). Different research topics and audiences bring forth different and unique challenges that are beyond the scope of an encompassing methodological or ethical standpoint. Initial power relations in a research can be skewed either ways: Sallie Westwood’s  (1984) research on everyday work lives of female workers in a Midlands hosiery factory is an example among countless others of a privileged researcher position, but Llerena Searle’s (2016) anthropological investigation of the practices and worldviews of international real estate consultants in Gurgaon where her informants were foreign MBA-educated Indian and white males with pay-checks several times higher than her research stipend constitutes an inverted position of power, which is not very uncommon in research. The positionality of the researcher in relation to the informant influences not only her level and ease of access to gaining information, but also strategies and unconscious practices of leveraging privilege. The contradiction within these strategies may burst forth in the open at moments exposing the workings, innocent or manipulative, of actual research practice. An experience from Ananya Roy’s book Calcutta: A Requiem (2002) illustrates such a moment which we present before narrating experiences from our own work.

To the settlement where she had already completed six months of fieldwork in, one day she accompanied a high-ranking party worker going on his rounds. The party worker was with Roy in her chauffeur-driven Ambassador car, a facility that Roy would always park a distance away and hide the fact from her subjects during her fieldwork. The party worker however insisted that they drive in the car to the heart of the settlement. When the crowds gathered around the worker, he introduced Roy: “She is a visitor from America, the richest country in the world, a country on whose aid the entire world survives. She owns a house here in Calcutta and a car. We came here today in her car.” Ananya Roy mentions her mortification given that her ethnographic performance had always been of a shabbily-dressed middle-class Calcutta girl, studying in America but hiding the fact of her hefty research grant. Her experience of feeling like deceiving her subjects ties in with some of the contradictions of our own methodologies, our positionalities and our apprehensions of appropriate conduct against the striving for information for our project.

We share our experiences below and would like to receive other experiences from junior and senior researchers in geography.

 

NATHALIE

My research focuses on Water (Resources) Users Associations in the Great Ruaha river in Tanzania and the Mara river in Kenya. My methods included inter alia participative observation and semi-structured interviews with a very wide range of people, who were socio-economically and culturally diverse. I am a junior white European researcher, who was often accompanied by British and local partners from an international environmental NGO in the field. I first describe a situation in which I felt underpowered due to my youth and being a female, and then contrast this experience by a second scenario where I felt overpowered as a European person, part of the “donor” community.

The spark to dig this conversation emerged from discussions between white British PhD students and post-docs in Tanzania, realising that targeted interviewees were often the same people in the water sector. This is certainly to be expected for elite interviews with professionals in the water sector holding key positions, and eminent local experts/researchers. The intrigue started when I – as a young female PhD student – realised I was not accessing the “elites” my connections/friends were easily interviewing. These connections and friends were also PhD and post-doc students, new to the Tanzanian context, but male. There could be a myriad of reasons for which this situation occurred, some of them coming from the potential interviewer and some of them coming from the potential interviewee. Whatever the reason may be, and whether systematic or not, I started to question myself on how my research would be impacted by not having access to these key interviewees. Is it enough to recognise my positionality and failure to access perspectives offered by these elites? Is this recognition of importance for methodology, or is it a factor to take into account when discussing limitations to my findings? The elite interviews my connections and friends had allowed them to access hydrological data which was not offered to me upon polite, official and subsequently unofficial requests. My connection had described to me the “buddying” he had with one of the academics, based on having drinks at the local pub near the campus. As a young woman, I had come to the pub as well but such “buddying” with a senior male researcher would have been culturally inappropriate. (I had an experience trying to listen to beer hole conversations between pastoralists on the cow market day and gradually realised that all men left, as I was unwelcomed in this space reserved to men).

How can I assess the effects of the bias created by my positionality? The outcome in my case is that I did not access flow and rainfall data for my study basin. This type of experience repeated itself when I requested to hold interviews with the basin water officer and the director of water resources at the ministry of water and irrigation; these were not granted to me, contrarily to my connections. I was finally successful in holding a conversation with the basin water officer when I was in the company of senior male colleagues my partner NGO.

The second power relation trap I found myself in were the expectations from interviewees for a certain type of compensation for the time spent helping me with my research. Having myself been an interviewee in other student’s research projects or professional research, I knew a gesture was always appreciated (usually in the form of a coffee or drink during the interview). However, as I started my research as a participant observer at the NGO’s programme deployments, I got to understand the per diem culture. Those accustomed to working with foreign organisations, and those working within the foreign organisations (in local branches for example) will expect per diems for taking part in workshops, round tables and activities; I realised there was even an informal monetary scale, and some employees factor these per diems in in their family’s budgets. It became increasingly apparent that I would have to follow these codes when undertaking my own research, particularly if I were to involve participants who were used to the NGO I was working with. Slightly before setting off for my independent field work (without the partner NGO), I shared these thoughts with my translator who was a young man having previously translated for other western women undertaking their PhD research. He confirmed that the practice was to give a small contribution to each person we would interview (TZS 2’000). Himself and other Tanzanian friends confirmed that this was a common practice that they would also follow, were they to ask for help or information from people they do not know. I definitely can follow the logic: I was taking time off people’s daily activities, and it seemed fair to show appreciation for the information I need so dearly for my PhD. It seemed a little less logical to do so with government employees for whom I expected this type of activity to be set as a job task (and so I usually did not make a gesture of this kind). The questions which came up from these practices were whether the monetary transaction which was often expected, and taking place, was impacting the interviewees I was reaching, and the answers I was retrieving. Were those who knew there would be a monetary transaction keener? Would this mean I interviewed those who were already familiar with working with NGOs? Did I receive responses formulated specifically considering my linkage with the NGO? If so, what did I miss out on? I considered these issues and tried to overcome some gatekeepers in order to access marginalised people, who were not regularly involved with donor programmes.

PRATIK

My PhD research is on the political ecology of water flows in the drinking and wastewater canals that exist to serve cities but also flow across many peri-urban and rural villages along their course. The field site is Gurgaon, a major city of North India adjoining Delhi. I look at how farmers in the villages located along the canals of Gurgaon are affected and negotiate the water flows especially for irrigation, and a complementary part of that research is looking at the bureaucracy of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department who manage the canal’s structure and oversee its flow. I am an Indian upper-caste/ class male who is not from the region (I am from East India) but hardly find my position disadvantageous. I am often asked my full name during interviews, and my surname which is a sure indication of my caste fits in with the identity of a researcher. The counter-factual of how a less- privileged positionality might have influenced my research is difficult to draw out, but I rather here dwell on a personal account of a research engagement. It is illustrative of how asserting your position of privilege is often a useful though uncomfortable component of research. Here I leverage my class and educational privilege in a way that went against my notion of research ethics while being unaware, at most times, how my caste and gender privilege are part of my everyday toolkit in accessing research sites and individuals.

I am outside the Irrigation Asst. Superintendent Engineer’s office, having just returned from the field. In my case, calling it the field was appropriate because hours ago, I was standing upon harvested wheat fields of jutting stalks, standing remnants from what was an ordinary harvest that year. I interview farmers and study their practices and institutions of water use from canals. It’s been a hot day and I was sweating through my shirt, lugging around my backpack, basically being in an unpresentable manner. That never hindered me in the farms though, I would like to think it was an advantage. I looked ordinary, possibly pitiable, to them and farmers would be generous with their time and food and often invited me into their homes for extended discussions on arrangements of water sharing in the village. In the Bureaucrat’s office I was a pestilence upon their time. After a few hours of being redirected around and waiting on closed doors with meetings, I would be turned away with polite excuses and asked to arrive on a later day. Though I might have scheduled appointments over the phone, a meeting or other would come up and someone would be warmly welcomed as if an act of God had occurred against my purpose. This continued for a few days and I slowly frustrated of my interest in studying the bureaucracy. I did manage some interviews but not nearly enough.

I took advice from a senior whose research involved interviewing the bureaucrats of a different departments in a different state. My mistake soon became apparent. The next time I went, I dressed up, took an Uber instead of a bus to the Irrigation office and had a new decent self-made business card announcing my involvement in a research project covering 3 sites across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and funded by the Netherland’s Scientific Research Organization NWO. I actively projected the airs of a person whose time was valuable, switching to English in my introductions rather than the colloquial Hindi that served me very well in my research with farmers. It was a temperament of haughtiness that I wasn’t used to at all, and goes against, I think, the general ethos of academic research. It did predictably serve me well though. The Superintendent Engineer bestowed his grace upon me and soon I managed to do all my interviews, as well as got permission to join junior engineers in their patrol ride along the canals.

This episode highlights nothing especially shocking. It’s common sense that a well-dressed person is received better. But one should also consider that the dealings of the irrigation department is overwhelmingly with farmers and contractors/ labourers, and so being well-dressed or important should not be a requirement. I just remember being uncomfortable and keenly aware of my own role in shifting the power relations and exercising my privilege so blatantly. Especially when I was talking to the Superintendent Engineer for the greater part of an hour while farmers who had travelled a distance had to wait outside for their turn in voicing their grievances.

 

If you would like to continue this conversation or provide any feedback, please get in touch directly with Nathalie (Nathalie.richards@kcl.ac.uk) and Pratik (Pratik.mishra@kcl.ac.uk)

 

References

McDowell, L. (1992). Doing Gender: Feminism, Feminists and Research Methods in Human Geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 17 (4): 399-416

Patai, D. (1991) US academics and Third World women: is ethical research possible?, in Gluck, S. B. and Patai,  D. (eds) Women’s words: the feminist practice of oral history. Routledge, London. pp 13

Pile, S. (1991) Practising interpretative geography. Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers, 16: 458-69

Roy, A. (2003). City requiem, Calcutta: gender and the politics of poverty. Univ of Minnesota Press.

Searle, L. G. (2016). Landscapes of accumulation: Real estate and the neoliberal imagination in contemporary India. University of Chicago Press.

Stacey, J. (1988) Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women’s Studies International Forum, 11: 21-7

Westwood, S. (1984). All day, every day. Pluto. London

STUDENT PROFILE: MICHAEL WILLIAMSON NERC DTP STUDENT

Mike holds a BSc in Zoology from Newcastle University and an MSc in Wild Animal Biology from the Institute of Zoology. He is currently undertaking a PhD investigating the environmental drivers influencing the movement networks and social ecology of reef sharks in the British Indian Ocean Territory under Dr Emma Tebbs at King’s College London and Dr David Jacoby at the Institute of Zoology as part of the London NERC DTP.

Mike’s research interests lie in using tagging technologies and remote sensing to investigate movement ecology of marine fauna. From 2010 – 2015, Mike was employed as the research officer for the University of Queensland, investigating the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance of humpback whales. From 2016 to starting his PhD, Mike worked as a freelance field researcher, employed on a number of projects by institutions such as St Andrews University and the World Conservation Society, investigating many aspects of movement ecology in marine fauna, such as humpbacks, dugongs and northern bottlenose whales.

Mike’s PhD project will use extensive acoustic tracking data from grey reef and silvertip sharks over a five-year period from the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and environmental data from satellite remote sensing to provide insights into how reef shark movement, habitat and social patterns are influenced by environmental change. This is valuable data for policy makers in order to aid management decisions for the conservation of highly mobile marine fauna. He chose King’s for his PhD due to the expertise and experience of his supervisor (Dr Emma Tebbs) in remote sensing and aquatic research.

The key objectives for the project are to:

  1. Explore the temporal periodicity of reef shark movements in BIOT (temporally recurring motifs in movement networks).
  2. Define how best to incorporate new, high resolution environmental monitoring data into animal movement networks at an appropriate spatial and temporal scale.
  3. Model the relationship between environmental drivers and reef shark movement networks in BIOT.
  4. Develop fine scale remote sensing techniques for reef health in BIOT to detect long and short-term impacts of coral bleaching events.
  5. Measure the indirect impacts of coral bleaching events on the structural connectivity of the reef shark population using satellite imagery.

Mike’s three Water Words:

Marine

Sharks

Disturbance

On water wars: Opinion article by a collective of authors

King’s Water member, Dr Naho Mirumachi, joined a collective of authors to pen an opinion article on water wars. This piece serves as a reality check to the hype around water wars, especially when water issues are in the limelight with World Water Day debates. The full opinion article is published below.

 

“Why are water wars back on the agenda?

And why we think it’s a bad idea!”

There is a recent and worrying trend towards a renewed “water wars” narrative in some policy and media circles. As readers may remember, the water wars discourse emerged out of the early post-Cold War period of the 1990s. More than twenty-five years later, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is back. This short opinion article critically reflects on this trend and questions its timing, purpose and the evidence on which it is based. To speak of ‘war’ is to invoke images of militaries, violent conflict and destruction on a grand scale. Although we do not deny that water can be a factor – one among many – in some conflicts and mainly at intra-state level, we question why this drift towards water ‘securitisation’ at this time? To align ‘water’ with war is without doubt worrying, for water is an essential and non-substitutable resource needed by all. But to suggest that inter-state water wars are forthcoming is to ignore or undervalue decades of cooperative action. What is being argued here is in support of a more nuanced approach, that is both more evidence-based and constructive, highlighting the many varied and overwhelmingly positive efforts at an international level in support of cooperation within complex shared river basins. Ultimately, we believe that transboundary water cooperation is primarily a development issue and one that should remain in that space.

Four critical observations:

  1. ‘Water wars’ are trendy again. Articles on “water wars” are reappearing. Alarmism and sensationalism are long-standing characteristics of the media. Overstated headlines generate ‘clicks’ and higher advertising revenues. In a world of huge information volume there is, arguably, a ‘race to the bottom’ to capture the attention of information consumers. So Cape Town’s “Day Zero” has captured international media attention, whereas the everyday struggles of millions of rural and peri-urban people without water goes largely unnoticed. This kind of reporting returns us to the early 1990s and the original “water wars” narrative that water stress and scarcity would drive 21st century inter-state wars and conflicts. We now see a similar trend where security and military actors are using water, climate and environmental issues in their analysis of inter-state instability and conflict. International think-tanks and NGOs have been picking up on the theme. This re-emergence of ‘water wars’ as an acceptable narrative without substantive evidence is vividly exemplified in the Nile Basin where the BBC recently broadcast a series entitled “The ‘water war’ brewing over the new River Nile dam”. Without balance, this story failed to reference actual cooperation processes underway (see other examples from the Nile 1,2). Likewise in the Mekong (1,2) and river basins in South and Central Asia, and in regions of the world where there is recent violent conflict – e.g. Darfur, Syria, Yemen or Lake Chad – there is a rush to find ‘water causality’, whilst disregarding other local drivers and important geopolitical context. Reinforcing a simple dyad of resource scarcity-conflict renders simplistic what is frequently complex and multi-causal. Thirty years down the line, we observe this new water securitisation trend is also being linked with other global concerns – such as terrorism and intercontinental migration – that put pressure on the existing international order. Some global powers have been responding to these interlinked concerns by bringing water into their foreign policy agendas, in particular when linked to regions and countries they consider of geostrategic importance. The new US Global Water Strategy, launched last November, is a case in point.
  2. Dubious correlations/causality. We argue that selective use of evidence and/or the disproportionate and ill-informed attention to specific complex and contested rivers is partially responsible for the re-emergence of ‘water wars’ headlines that can obscure what is really going on and mislead the wider public. Recent studies on the negative effects of biased selection of case-studies and on the links/variables describing climate-conflict relationships illustrate how easy it is, as a result, to skew public perceptions. These biases are essentially reductionist and limit wider public understanding of the complexities at stake. In the Nile, for instance, many processes of cooperation are in parallel with the wider discourse of dispute and conflict but are often ignored in the mainstream media. If they were given more air time, the ‘slide to war’ thesis would look somewhat threadbare and misleading. Some studies do convincingly link climate change and water scarcity to particular local level, low-intensity violence, but these cannot then be extrapolated up and out to larger geographic (e.g. river basin) or political/administrative (e.g. inter-state) contexts. Indeed, exhaustive studies show inter-state water conflict to be extremely rare in most international contexts and cooperation and even peacebuilding are closer to the norm.
  3. Heap fiction upon fiction, and we miss the big picture. One of the most negative facets of the ‘water wars’ narrative is that it blocks out other, more pressing, narratives. Here are three examples. First, actual cases of resource-based conflicts and associated inequities at the national and sub-national levels. These affect the human and livelihood insecurity of the most vulnerable segments of society across the Global South, including appalling limits to water access facing hundreds of millions of people, as well as insecurities and inequalities driven by land and water grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa, or rampant hydropower development in Asia. Second, the big picture on transboundary cooperation work, including high watermark processes such as the entering into force of the UN Water Convention, and having all UN member states commit to operationalising arrangements for transboundary water cooperation by 2030 under the SDGs. At a regional level this includes Southern Africa advancing legal and institutional cooperation at a transboundary level, and in the Nile Basin the recent heads-of-state meeting between the Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to discuss filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Third, the spectre of ‘war’ distracts us from the role that shared waters play in bringing ‘parties’ together to generate significant economic benefits for societies – including sustaining the livelihoods of millions of people for centuries in the Indus, Nile, Euphrates and hundreds of other shared river basins; or the hydroelectric power development that has helped Norway and Canada grow into large world economies; or, in particular, the trade in billions of cubic meters of “virtual water” through global food systems that helps ameliorate water deficits. All these (and other) important elements are so often overlooked under mainstream coverage as they sit outside the ‘water wars’ narrative.
  4. Over-securitisation of transboundary water resources: Why now this re-emerging trend towards ‘securitisation’ of water resources? One reason seems to be the military and security communities once again focusing on transboundary waters as a corollary to discussions surrounding climate change and national security. Evidence includes a very recent report produced by US military actors (and endorsed by some international water scientists) that places water stress as a factor in global conflict hotspots. This helps the security community ‘self-justify’ while providing space for some to argue that, in the face of potential climate-induced mass migrations, ‘the only force that can beat climate change is the U.S. Army’, as stated in a recent Foreign Policy article. There are well-rehearsed risks associated with processes of securitisation. Framing water competition as a ‘national security’ issue closes off public debate and may exacerbate tensions. This framing can also juxtapose water challenges on other issues of migration, ethnic complexity and the upholding of human rights. Securitisation can also conflate basin-level challenges with wider geopolitical processes and interests (including those that extend beyond riparian countries alone). The net effect of all these processes is to present transboundary waters as a highly conflict-laden challenge, rather than as a developmental challenge that constructive cooperation can help to unpick. Instead, shared waters become dangerous and states sharing resources become ‘enemies’, rather than ‘good neighbours’. Therefore, ‘over-securitisation’ runs the risk of contributing further to diverting attention from fundamentally important technical, social, environmental and economic factors that should drive future management, development and allocation decision-making processes.

 

Some ways forward: So, what can be done? On this World Water Day, and in the broad spirit of cooperation, we offer up three suggestions.

First, researchers have to bring their accumulated evidence into a more public domain, and place greater emphasis on bringing to the public evidence that cooperation is the norm, not conflict. We need to show that deterministic analysis of water and conflict is misleading and that, above all, a critical – and more public – debate is required that challenges speculative and unsubstantiated analysis of transboundary water processes.

Second, we call on foreign-policy communities (development partners and international organisations, including think-thanks) to continue to support riparian countries and regional organisations in their existing ‘collective action’ processes, namely transboundary water cooperation rooted in local and regional contexts, where substantial success has been achieved over a sustained period. Make these the focus for engagement and debate and let the current and future priorities – and framings – be defined by riparians themselves, rather than by international media or other external actors and agendas. In this we call for greater leadership of the narrative by riparian countries themselves in order to communicate more effectively how regionally-driven and participatory transboundary cooperation process(es) achieve success and can help to refute more unconstructive securitisation narratives.

Third, and last, we call on international and regional media outlets, particularly editors and senior journalists, to avoid sensationalist conjecture and present a more balanced view that goes beyond simplified ‘water wars’ narratives. They should be more responsible in their coverage and framing and use their own editorial guidelines more faithfully to report all sides of a story. More pro-active engagement of media, researchers and policy-makers will help in supporting a more constructive, inclusive, and above all peaceful dialogue on solving the many transboundary water management challenges facing the international community in coming years.

Authors: Ana Elisa Cascão; Alvar Closas; Emanuele Fantini; Goitom Gebreleul; Tobias Ide; Guy Jobbins; Rémy Kinna; Flávia Rocha Loures; Bjørn-Oliver Magsig; Nate Matthews; Filippo Menga; Naho Mirumachi; Ruby Moynihan; Alan Nicol; Terje Oestigaard; Alistair Rieu-Clarke; Jan Selby; Suvi Sojamo; Larry Swatuk; Rawia Tawfik; Harry Verhoeven; Jeroen Warner; Mark Zeitoun

 

STUDENT PROFILE: NATHAN GOLDSTEIN MSC IN WATER SCIENCE AND GOVERNANCE

Nathan Goldstein is a current MSc student in the Water Science and Governance program at King’s College London and hails from West Bloomfield Michigan, a township located near Detroit, Michigan.  He completed his Bachelors of Science in both Marine Geology and History from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Not wanting to leave the warm weather, he spent time both volunteering and working with the United States Geological Survey under Dr. Kimberly Yates. During his time with Dr. Yates he assisted on 3 field excursions to the Dry Tortuga National Park. This, in combination with his liaison role between government agencies, pushed him to better understand the ways in which science is communicated and understood as well as the dangers of climate change. In pursuit of this goal, Nathan looked towards King’s Water program as a way to do so. Primarily, its interdisciplinary capacity and breadth of faculty research drew him towards the program. Its reputation and location also provides excellent international opportunities which he hopes to capitalize on for both future research and career paths.

Nathan preparing sample bottles in the Dry Tortugas. (Photo Credit to Benjamin Drummond)

Nathan preparing sample bottles in the Dry Tortugas. (Photo Credit to Benjamin Drummond)

Nathans project at King’s will centre around the dangers of climate change, its threat to fresh water security and the (hopefully) multiple ways in which these can be averted. Having grown up in a region that has abundant fresh water (The Great Lakes and the multitude of small lakes) and lived on the Gulf of Mexico’s coast, water has been a constant is Nathan’s life. The threat of Climate Change and its multitude of dangers to coastal cities, state resources and infrastructure are an ever present and growing fact of life. Nathan hopes that his research will allow him to assist at risk areas by expressing the full extent of the dangers that loom in the future.

KING’S WATER ANNUAL LECTURE

The King’s Water Activity Hub is proud to announce our 2017-2018 Annual Lecture, featuring Professor Richard Thompson from Plymouth University. The Annual Lecture will be held Tuesday January 30th, between 4:30 and 6pm in the Pyramid Room (K4U.04), Department of Geography, of the Strand Building, King’s College London. A drinks reception will follow.

King's Water Annual Lecture

 

 

King’s College Team Records Ecology of the Tidal River Thames

In early November, a team of 30 volunteers from King’s College and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) undertook a unique and exciting survey on the bed of the River Thames near Richmond.

Armed with only tapemeasures and quadrats, our group made recordings of over 3600 benthic organisms and their habitat over a 2 day period. It was an intensive and often strenuous effort made to better understand population dynamics of invasive and native mussels in the Thames. Further, a sorely needed expansion to ecological knowledge in this typically inaccessible section of the tidal river.

Uniquely, the Port of London Authority (PLA) had permitted our access to the foreshore during an artificial drawdown of the river. Here, maintenance work on an upstream weir had locked the outgoing freshwater tide upstream: resulting with a window of opportunity where almost the entire Thames bed was exposed for us to survey (See Picture).

Thames

Photo Credit: Eleanore Heasley

Despite the cold starts and the frequent threat of rain, our memorable Kings College team contributed hugely to the data collected, now to be shared with ZSL for an upcoming report. Among many highlights, our work suggested that in terms of individuals, 97% of all recorded mussels were invasive, rather than native species in this section of the Thames. With mussels often being such an important component to freshwater communities, seeing such alien varieties so dominant is arguably of great environmental concern. Much is now left open for future research in this area of the Thames.

Particular thanks for such a great few days go to our ZSL partners but also the KCL team: Gemma Borelli, Nathan Goldstein, Claudia Gutierrez, Eleanore Heasley, Giacomo Moretti, Bruce Main, Mike Chadwick, Anna Lavelle, Eleri Pritchard, Richard Mason and Harry Sanders. As always, the debrief in the pub was a pleasure! –Daniel Mills, Kings College London

PhD Researcher Profile: Pratik Mishra

‘What can the study of informal and subversive practices by which peri-urban farmers lay claim to urban-oriented water flows in drinking and waste-water canals tell us about the equity and justice dimensions of urbanization in growing Indian cities?’

‘How do notions of honor attached to agricultural land interact with its market-determined value to create a context of exchange where different ‘regimes of value’ coexist?’

‘Why do countries with similar economic backgrounds end up with different levels of alcohol consumption per capita and different mixes of beer, wine and spirits up to the present day?’

 

These are three different questions that Pratik Mishra has committed his time to answering over the last 2 years before he joined King’s as a PhD researcher in Human Geography, basing his research more or less around the first question.

IMG_20151129_142241

Pratik Mishra is from Bhubaneswar, a city on the east coast of India. He completed his Bachelors in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur and his Masters in Sustainable Development Practice from TERI University, New Delhi. Though he has held no prior position that would strictly count as a job, he worked on a number of internships and his ethnographic rural field research experience would make for around 15 months cumulatively. In a subtle incremental way, this experience has helped him quite a lot in knowing the right questions to ask and negotiating research in completely new villages looking out of place with a backpack and a notepad (though he still remains quite afraid of stray dogs which is a significant occupational hazard in his line of work!)

Pratik’s project will explore the ways in which canals meant to serve the urban metabolism do not constitute inert flows as they make their way through ‘conduit’ peri-urban villages serving variously as sites of seepage, irrigation, theft, conflict, street-level bureaucracy, etc. The canals that represent rural-urban flows of water come to signify a relationship between the urban and its periphery that might be expropriative or otherwise, but of course in a much more nuanced sense. He hopes that his research will be able to intersect and provide new insights in literatures on Southern Urbanism, Water Politics and Institutions, and Urban Political Ecology. Given that social research on urban metabolism bringing out all the lopsided design, institution and politics will always have as its baseline motive and reality the human suffering that is a shameful consequence of it all, he aspires to not lose track of that all too human reality in situating his work around infrastructures. In that direction, narrative ethnographies on the borderlines of literary non-fiction are a thing of great fascination for him.

He received PGR funding from the Graduate School for his research. His Lead Supervisor is Dr. Alex Loftus.

Pratik’s three Water Words:

Network

 

                                    Norms

 

                                                                        Non-neutral

 

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