Pluralizing water science

This blog post is a collaboration between Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum, Margreet Zwarteveen, Jaap Evers, Emilie Buist, and Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero

Every year in October, IHE Delft organises a one week introduction week to welcome its new batch of MSc students. In addition to learning how to bike, eat stroopwafels and poffertjes and get otherwise acquainted to the Dutch society, the students also jointly delve into a water related theme. This year the Water Governance Chair Group organized this more academic part of the introduction week for the 114 new students. As the theme for these 4 days, we choose pluralizing water sciences.

We choose the theme because we wanted the incoming students to appreciate that there are many different ways of studying and knowing water; different forms of water wisdom as well as different types of water experts. We hoped to engage them in critical reflections about the implications of this plurality of water knowledges, for instance by exploring whether and how they can be integrated and combined. Importantly, we also choose this theme to improve student’s sensitivity to some of the hierarchies that are still prevalent in (water) sciences. We felt this, for some controversial, theme is particularly relevant for IHE Delft since so many of our students come all the way from the ‘global South’ to study water in the Netherlands. A more or less implicit idea that Dutch water knowledge is superior to other ways of knowing water, or more generally that the more advanced water science comes from Northern countries, often informs their decision to come and study in the Netherlands. We hoped to open up this idea for questioning.

On the first day we had two key-note speeches. The first, Dr. Nikhil Anand, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, held a key-note address entitled ‘’Leaks and the Hydraulic City’’. In his speech, Dr. Anand shared the outcomes of his anthropological research on water supply provisioning in Mumbay with the audience. His work uses Mumbai’s water infrastructure as an entry-point for explaining wider urban socio-political dynamics and hierarchies. Dr. Anand not just demonstrates that continuous efforts to control, maintain, and manage the city’s water form and intrinsic part of the city’s political and cultural DNA, but he also shows that Mumbai’s urban politics and processes of differentiation importantly happen around water provisioning. Based on his extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai’s settlements, he showed the students that the direction and nature of water flows in Mumbai are the result of dynamically evolving interactions and relations between pipes and valves, residents, plumbers, politicians (most notably city councillors) and engineers. One of his methods consisted of tracing leaks in the piped network. Some of these leaks are (made) known, and serve to mobilize political and financial support for repairs or new investments. Others are hidden or kept away from public scrutiny, for instance because they are caused by connections that are unofficial, yet tolerated by operators and councillors. In this way, leaks play a vital role in shaping Mumbai’s popular politics as well as in explaining how the provisioning of water services happens. Dr. Anand insists that his analysis has relevance beyond Mumbai, and even beyond so-called Southern cities: also in New York, a large percentage of the water flowing through the network is unaccounted for. In his analysis, leaks are not the anomaly that needs to be explained and remedied. Leaks are what makes the system work.

In the discussion that followed Dr. Anand’s presentation, many students identified with the engineers responsible for the Mumbai water system. Many recognized Dr. Anand’s analysis of an engineering work ethos, which explains why many city engineers are more interested in increasing supply – for instance by building yet another dam, or a water treatment plant – than investing in maintenance. There is more glory (and more money!) in new constructions, than there is in tracing and repairing leaks, work that is often literally invisible as it happens under the ground and at night.

Dr. Gloria Wekker, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Center of Expertise on Gender, Ethnicity and Multiculturality in Higher Education at Utrecht University, gave a key-note address entitled ‘’Beyond White Innocence in the Academy’’. Her research explores a central paradox of Dutch culture, namely the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing what she called “a cultural archive” built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, she fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a ‘gentle’ and ‘ethical’ nation. Professor Wekker showed the students, amongst others, how the persistent denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege in Dutch universities and the failure to grasp race in the (Dutch) academy. Her key-note address helped our students (and us!) in understanding, questioning, challenging and hopefully changing the white and masculine foundations of much water science and professionalism, which requires not only diversity among students and lecturers, but also a recognition of diverse forms of knowledge.

In the afternoon, we invited the students to visualize their heroines and heroes using different forms of arts. Doing this, we hoped, would provide a positive way for all students to articulate what drives them, explain what motivates their choices and share with others why they choose to do a MSc at IHE Delft. Making this explicit not only helps to get to know each other, but also in understanding how we as lecturers can best help students in achieving their ambitions in life. The workshop resulted in a colourful and touching mix of portraits of well-known as well as less known persons or sometimes animals or gods. It also revealed that most of the students have the aspiration to somehow make this world into a better place: through their choice of heroes and heroines, students declared their commitment to larger values of equity, justice and sustainability. Some of the stories behind the heroes and heroines have been recorded on video and can be watched here.

On the second day we reflected with students on the art works they made and discussed what their heroines and heroes mean for their ambitions and needs here at IHE Delft. This was followed by a session on Ethics in Science by Professor Charlotte de Fraiture in which the students made interactive word clouds in response to questions on the need for ethics in science. Moreover, the students were informed on how IHE Delft strives for ethical behaviour in research and education and what the implications are thereof for students and staff.

In the afternoon we organized a session on ‘seeing water from many places’ which included four pitches of researchers using different perspectives and methodologies for studying water. Dr. Araceli Rojas looked at water from the past by delving into the amazingly sophisticated water use practices of the Aztecs in 16th century Mexico. Dr. Poolad Karimi gave the students a recipe for building a time machine and took them into the future by projecting the global water demands for the year 2050. Dr. Jonna van Opstal showed the students water from above by taking them on a satellite ride and illuminating them on the fast developing field of remote sensing techniques mobilized for water research. And ‘almost Dr.’ Hermen Smit brought the students with their feet back on the ground by exposing them to the multiple lived experiences of different farmers in a Sudanese irrigation scheme. This was followed by a panel discussion to examine the assumptions and added value of each research approach and to discuss opportunities for, and tensions in, integrating different research methodologies.

The day was closed off by a lecture of Professor Margreet Zwarteveen on how expertise becomes embodied and why being recognized as an expert is easier for some than for others. She discussed with the students the symbolic, cultural and performative dimensions of scientific expertise. Understanding these help to reveal how ‘otherness’ itself has become constructed and performed within and through scientific expertise and how such constructions work to legitimize and endorse some forms of scientific authority and expertise, and not others. The lecture helped the students to understand that scientific expertise is ‘made’ white and masculine as it is coloured and shaped by colonial histories as well as by contemporary geo-political and economic relations of power. Margreet’s main message for the students was to nurture and cherish their own ‘otherness’ as a source of creativity and strength.

The third day started with three staff members of IHE Delft telling the students their personal trajectories, from the place where they were born to where they are now. Illustrated with picture of younger versions of themselves and full of marvellous anecdotes, Dr. Phil Torio, Dr. Claire Furlong and Mrs. Caroline Murungi showed the students that there are several paths that can lead to becoming recognized water scholars, even if this is against the odds and requires tremendous perseverance and sacrifices. With sharing their personal stories these staff members hope to have inspired the students to believe in themselves, to work hard and to follow their dreams.

In the afternoon, and continuing on the fourth day, the students were engaged in the interactive LIBRA role game. This game simulates the process of water resources planning and management within a river basin in which three stakeholder groups with different interests and perspectives compete for water, namely the River Basin Authority, City Water Utility and Irrigation District Association. The game was played in two rounds of eleven parallel sessions, each representing a specific river basin in the world, in which groups of about ten students negotiated how water should be distributed in their basin. During each round individual and joint actions were proposed by the different stakeholder groups as input for a fifteen year water allocation plan for each river basin after which the outcomes and effects of these actions were calculated by the LIBRA model and shared with each group. The objective of the game is for students to experience the challenges in achieving multiple, and sometimes competing, goals often included river basin management plans, such as decreasing existing water deficits, improving wetland status, improving the situation of different economic sectors (e.g. industry, farming, fisheries) and avoiding financial disruption of the three stakeholder organizations. The group that this year succeeded best in optimizing the allocation of water resources and negotiating the trade-offs was the Nile river basin group. They won the ‘gold’ medal that represents the everlasting honour of winning the 2017 LIBRA game!

We as Water Governance Chair Group very much enjoyed organizing this introduction week and we would like to thank all of those who contributed to it and especially the new Master students for their enthusiasm and active engagement. We wish you a very inspiring 18 months here at IHE Delft!

* Featured image: N.A.T. Esther van der Linde. Water ZomerExpo 2017 © ArtWorlds

**For a longer version of the stories behind the students’ heroes, heroines, and inspirations click here.


Cite this blog post
Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero (2017, October 31). Pluralizing water science. FLOWs. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from

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