Redefining neutrality: transdisciplinary action research in water conflicts
Jonatan Godinez Madrigal joined IHE Delft Water Governance Department a few months ago and in April successfully defended his PhD! Building on his experience in Zapotillo (Mexico) he reflects on why and how researchers should engage with the local actors they encounter in the field.
As a scientist, how much does one value neutrality? What does impartiality even mean in practice and what is the use of it? Are there any trade-offs against other values and objectives during research? Is contributing to knowledge necessarily the end goal of any scientist? These are some practical and methodological questions I faced during my PhD research.
Studying water conflicts in Zapotillo, Mexico
The Zapotillo case study I researched during my PhD consisted of a water conflict that erupted during the imposition of the Zapotillo large-scale water infrastructure that intended to bring about water security to two large cities in Mexico through an intra-basin water transfer (Fig. 1). The case was characterized by a high level of complexity, social conflict, and the root causes of the water crises and conflict were unstructured and without clear-cut solutions. Therefore, in this context, having my PhD research contributing exclusively to scientific knowledge seemed underwhelmingly bizarre, even shallow. Surely reality and its problems are not there only to serve our professional purposes and goals. Scientific knowledge should serve to much more than just building up a scientist’ career in a long list of achievements that mostly other scientists care about.
During the course of my research I realized that one of the main drivers of water crises and conflict in many cities in Mexico was not only rooted in governance, but also long-term feedback mechanisms related to water infrastructure and the urban model based on continuous growth adopted by many cities. These feedback mechanisms perpetuated a social, technical, institutional and political architecture that reproduced the same unequal and unsustainable conditions that generated water crises and conflicts. In other words, the urban water systems and basins were trapped in vicious cycles (like for instance the supply-demand cycle described by Kallis in the case of Athens.) of which the Zapotillo project was just the latest expression; causing immediate relief, but building upon this same problematic architecture and contributing to a future crisis. In that sense, the water conflict was the symptom signalling a deeper and severer situation in the water system that needed to change. And the only actor in a quest of alternative models of water management with sufficient legitimacy was the grassroots movement led by Temacapulín, one of the three dam-affected communities.
Slow science: engaging with grassroots movements
Given this high-stakes and polarizing situation, remaining neutral might be warranted, but then neutrality should be redefined. Some of the definitions of “neutral” given by the Webster dictionary, are telling: “not decided or pronounced as to characteristics”, “INDIFFERENT”, and “in a position of disengagement.” Neutrality must still be enacted, but not as a passive neutrality characterised by indifference and disengagement, but as an active endeavour driven by values beyond scientific knowledge, like contributing to collectively finding alternative solutions to water crises and conflicts that are sustainable and equitable, and especially are rooted in local contexts. A trade-off of this kind of research is that it usually takes longer to conduct due to the complexity of addressing multiple objectives driven by values other than research merely knowledge driven. However, in the fast-paced dynamics prevalent in academia, it is more difficult to undertake this kind of transdisciplinary action research. Therefore, making academia more relevant to society, might imply a shift towards the adoption of what Lane (2017) calls ‘slow science’.
This kind of slow science requires to work along with stakeholders on endeavours that may neither have any scientific purpose, nor be driven by the interests of the scientists. It allows stakeholders to talk back to the research and have a say in it. In the last years of my PhD, my supervisors and I became actively involved in supporting the grassroots movement of the case study. Our published research explored topics that were of use to the social movement (i.e., the allegedly neutral water resources models used to justify the water infrastructure (Godinez Madrigal et al., 2020; cfr. Alba & Ter Horst, 2022 for a more in depth exploration of “neutral models”); as well as contributing to science by incorporating water conflicts as feedback mechanisms of the supply-demand cycle in cities (Godinez Madrigal et al., 2022a). Moreover, when the President of Mexico offered to transform the conflict through a proposal based on retrofitting the Zapotillo dam, we also played a role in analysing the proposal, advising the communities on technical issues and collectively developing a a better counterproposal. The negotiation processes culminated in a historic agreement with the Mexican government and the communities based on this counter-proposal (Godinez Madrigal, 2022b).
Getting off the pedestal
In conclusion, the notion of neutrality should make scientists neither indifferent nor disengaged on the societal needs of the cases studies, which could be aided by scientific knowledge and the active participation of scientists. However, these activities are not remunerated in the current academic performance systems driving the careers of scientists, based on a race of publications, citations, indexes, grants, projects, etc. The question then, is how to slow down the academic endeavour to support and undertake non-scientific objectives which can sometimes be crucial for much needed societal transformations.
Some valuable lessons I learned during my PhD is that scientists need to get off their pedestal by, beside analysing the world, also actively trying to change it …even if it costs you a couple extra years to finish your PhD! I was also fortunate to have very supporting supervisors who helped me navigating the risks and uncertainties regarding my limited finance and career prospects. They were especially patient in my action research process and assumed certain costs along with me, like non-(economically) remunerated labour and longer period to finish my PhD. Therefore, scientists seeking societal change need to have institutional and financial support. In return, these actions can also contribute to academic and teaching purposes. Students at IHE Delft and universities abroad have analysed this case study as a complex case involving multiple disciplines and have learned that water systems in crises and conflict can change, and sometimes individual (scientific) contributions can tip the balance for positive transformations in the world.
Alba, R., & Ter Horst, R. (2022). Towards a reflexive approach: connecting critical research on water modelling.
Godinez Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., and van der Zaag, P. (2020). Unraveling intractable water conflicts: the entanglement of science and politics in decision-making on large hydraulic infrastructure, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 24, 4903–4921, https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-24-4903-2020.
Godinez Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., Hoogesteger, J., Claure Gutierrez, P., and van der Zaag, P. (2022a). The limits to large-scale supply augmentation: exploring the crossroads of conflicting urban water system development pathways, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 26, 885–902,
Godinez Madrigal, J. (2022b). Paradigm Lost: On the Value of Lost Causes in Transforming Cities and Water Systems’ Development Pathways. PhD thesis: TU Delft.
Kallis, G. (2010). Coevolution in water resource development: The vicious cycle of water supply and demand in Athens, Greece. Ecological Economics, 69(4), 796-809.
Lane, S. N. (2017). Slow science, the geographical expedition, and critical physical geography. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien, 61(1), 84-101.