Water as transdisciplinary challenge: a dialogue between science and activism

In May IHE Delft hosted the workshop “Studying water as a transdisciplinary challenge: from environmental governance to knowledge and territorial politics”, co-organized with the Centre for Latin-American Research and Documentation (University of Amsterdam). Young researchers from all around the world discussed the bridges but also the tensions between science and activism in water research.

Every researcher has asked her/himself at least once what role to play in transforming society or influencing politics on water conflicts and challenges. Hence, the workshop aimed at offering a space of dialogue for young researchers in European universities working on water governance, the commons, knowledge politics, territoriality, and justice. Water often connects various environmental challenges for example in the case of mining protests, social movements, urban-rural connections, or climate justice. Therefore, thinking about water as a cross-cutting and connecting issue in grassroots mobilizations, socioenvironmental movements and multi-actor partnerships brings valuable insights to the academic debate.

Water science and activism in dialogue

Katribu National holds an anti-dam protest in the Philippines (credits: International rivers)

The workshop started with a stimulating dialogue between a scientist, Tom Perreault, professor of geography at Syracuse University, and an activist, Daniëlle Hirsch, director of the Dutch NGO Both Ends. They discussed three main questions. How should academic research adapt and communicate scientific knowledge to reach wider audiences (activists, professionals, students, local communities, wider public…)? How can academic researchers and activists/professionals collaborate to produce actionable knowledge? How can transdisciplinarity contribute to produce a common language in water governance research and activism?

Daniëlle opened her talk remembering that Both Ends is considered as a strong activist organization through its lobbying actions toward Dutch companies and institutions involved in water issues. She pointed out in particular the need to think about acting in our close environments before acting abroad. According to her, it would be easier to change the minds of our own sphere of influence by talking from the place we belong to. However, on the other hand, one could argue that acting from another country could help bringing new ways and perspectives to look at water challenges.

As a response, Tom asked as a first question if he really considers himself as a scientist. He developed several concrete examples to show the interactions between academia and activism. For example, he talked about the experience of a Community Geographer at Syracuse University who assumes a hybrid position by getting outside academia and helping local communities to map environmental justice issues. He also pointed at the importance of being an activist in the academic sphere by changing the way we are doing research and by influencing students’ minds and actions. Finally, he warned about the trap of getting too sophisticated by being too critical in our research, and the need to better communicate academic results and analyses.

Masterclasses

Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier (Credit: E. Dupuits)

The workshop continued with four parallel master classes on specific topics. The first master class, coordinated by Margreet Zwarteveen (IHE Delft), discussed issues of Water materialities, technicization, knowledge and expertise. The participants debated on two main aspects related to the researcher’s positionality and the nature/society dichotomy. They discussed the need to criticize the normativity of science and the social construction of water plans and policies as expected realities or artifacts and utopias. In a feminist scholarship perspective, there is no dichotomy between nature and society and water is always socially constructed.

The second master class, coordinated by Fabio de Castro (CEDLA), discussed issues of Grassroots mobilizations, multi-scale strategies and water commoning. The participants talked about the diversity of epistemological approaches in their research and the possible bridges between qualitative and quantitative methods. They also raised the issue of scale in water governance between individual and collective action, public and private actors, or local, national and transnational levels.

The third master class, coordinated by Rutgerd Boelens (Wageningen University/CEDLA), dealt with Territorial struggles, water justice and discourses. The participants talked about the romanticization of some concepts such as Buen Vivir and the struggles of meanings for example through a contrasted analysis between Ecuador and the Netherlands. Another struggle of meaning concerned the distinct perceptions of economists, engineers and water users on a same phenomenon. Finally, one overall issue was the influence of knowledge and perceptions in water conflicts.

The fourth master class, coordinated by Jampel Dell’Angelo (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), dealt with Polycentric governance, socio-ecological systems and water-grabbing. Participants discussed what actionable research concretely means and how leaving our ivory tower. One main question asked was who counts in academic research and how to better integrate stakeholders and the voiceless in polycentric analyses. Finally, they warned on the dangerous dichotomy made between science and activism and the need to think about the notion of democratic knowledge. On the one hand, doing science is always political and engages the researcher’s own subjectivity regarding the places and the actors studied. On the other hand, activists rely on scientific studies to strengthen political influence at higher audiences. Hence, the interconnection between science and activism contributes to produce accessible and grounded knowledge.

Water research is political

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (Credits: E. Dupuits)

Finally, the workshop ended with a lecture by Tom Perreault on “Changing landscapes, changing livelihoods: Water governance and rural transformation in Latin America”. According to Tom, how we conceptualize the rural is a political question. He tried to respond to this question through a case study on the impacts of climate change, neoliberal politics and State policies on water resources in the Bolivian altiplano. He showed in particular how historically the rural was distinctively perceived as a no-viable class or as a potential for entrepreneurship. More generally, Tom’s lecture was the opportunity to think about water as a lens to look at other social processes and as a point of contact for various organizations.

During the concluding debate of the workshop, the participants highlighted again how researching water is highly political and implies being aware of where and how knowledge is produced. Moreover, one participant pointed out that the researchers’ home is the university they work in and that activist battles should also take place inside universities. From this perspective, the main objective of academic research should become to defend this hybrid position at the crossroads between science and activism, towards new forms of democratic knowledge.


Emilie Dupuits

Emilie Dupuits currently works as a Postdoc researcher, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). She is guest researcher in the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, at the Universidad Central del Ecuador. She was previously a guest researcher in the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) at the University of Amsterdam, and a PhD student and teaching assistant at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Geneva. Emilie's research interests are linked to water and forest community-based governance, Latin American studies and transnational civil society networks and movements.

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