Picturing waters: a review of participatory visual research on water governance

In Cairo at the sunset the bridges are transformed in open air cafes: unconcerned by the noisy traffic, people align their plastic chairs on the sidewalk and drink tea while watching the flow of the Nile. Everywhere in the world people enjoy sitting by lakes, rivers, sea, canals and watching at waters. How this mesmeric property can be used to study water governance or to communicate scientific research? To address this question I did a review of Photovoice and similar participatory visual research on water governance, recently published on Wires Water (in Open Acces!).

Why participatory visual research? The review aims at contributing to the debate on equity and justice in water governance, focusing on one of the main problematic of environmental governance, that of political participation:  whose voices get heard and who makes decisions? I started by looking at research using Photovoice since this is one of the most popular participatory visual techniques.

As stated in a seminal article by its initiators (Wang and Burris, Photovoice: concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Educ Behav 1997) the main goals of Photovoice are:

  1. to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns,
  2. to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and
  3. to reach policymakers.

“There is only one borehole for the whole community, so if everyone used it there would be crowds and long queues. To get water, the people go to the dam and dig holes nearby to get water for drinking. They will not take water to drink from the dam itself as the animals also go there. The surface water is dirty but under it they find better water to drink”. © Kasim Atambire 2014 | PhotoVoice | Christian Aid | ‘MyPharm’ | Ghana  

I found  a total of 23 articles related to 20 projects adopting Photovoice or similar participatory visual methods to study (1) water, health, and sanitation; (2) participation in water management; (3) landscapes and water spaces; and (4) domestic urban waters. There seems to be a connection between geography and themes: participatory visual research is used to study water, health and sanitation issues only in Sub-Saharan Africa, while the same methods are applied to indigenous water resources management and to domestic urban water mostly in Australia and New Zealand.

The review has been also an opportunity to discover inspiring works like Travelling River a collaboration between scientists, artists and the people of the Motueka River catchment (New Zeeland), and to get a few books with interesting photos like Picturing freshwater justice in rural Australia by Jennifer McKay, Ganesh Keremane and Adam Gray (2010).

The review highlights two main achievements and one gap in participatory visual research on water governance. The first achievement is the potential of Photovoice in terms of generating knowledge about the distribution of water, as well as on eliciting emotions, values, and concerns on these issues. Visual research allows also to link these emotions to natural spaces, technical systems or water infrastructure. Second achievement: participatory visual methods are reported to facilitate the dialogue between different actors involved in or affected by water governance processes, like farmers and policy makers, researches and indigenous community, or girls and local authorities. Visual methods seem therefore a useful tool to address or mediate conflicts over water access and distribution.

However, while most articles assert that Photovoice proved an effective tool for communicating participants views to a wider audience and for reaching policy makers, data and analysis on these processes are generally lacking. Are participants’ voices really heard? And by whom? Did Photovoice have any impact on the decision making? Documenting and reflecting on these processes are crucial issues that future visual research on water governance should address, particularly in a time when science is increasingly asked to outreach and impact on societal issues. Other issues that could be further explored are the potential of Photovoice to address gender issues in water governance – so far only exploited in research on water and health in Sub-Saharan Africa – or to facilitate inter or trans-disciplinary work through visualization.
We will discuss and address these issues during the Summer course on visual methods for water communication at IHE Delft from July 31st to August 4th. The students will have the opportunity to discover how to use Photovoice to reflect on their work, to elicit information from their colleagues and to present them to a wider audience. Stay tuned!
To read the full article:

Fantini E. (2017), Picturing waters: a review of Photovoice and similar participatory visual research on water governance, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Water.

 


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is Senior Researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of UNESCO-IHE, where he works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. https://www.un-ihe.org/emanuele-fantini

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