Critically caring for water

Care is both a concept and an attitude. Therefore, the fourth episode of the series “Caring in water governance” – written by Christelle Gramaglia, Andres Verzijl, Tavengwa Chitata, Hajar Choukrani, Caroline Lejars, and Arianna Tozzi – presents different studies about care in the water sector, and reflect on how they can inspire our practices in academia and research.

Drawing by Cristian Olmos Herrera

“Critically caring” was the third thematic workshop of the event “Caring matters in knowing water”. As both a concept and an attitude towards doing research “care” is becoming more prominent in water and environmental sciences. This was at least our observation. Among the event’s 35 participants, about one third is somehow working with care – and six of us agreed to share these experiences with the group in short presentations. These presentations – clustered in three speed sessions on 1) conceptualizing care; 2) control and care in irrigation and management; and 3) wetland care – would serve as input for participants in three group discussions. In each of these discussions we posed a different question on care and water research.

Being the last workshop of a 2-day event we started under the olive trees in front of the workshop venue with a collaborative physical exercise inspired by the theatre of the oppressed – and led by Bruno Bonté (UMR G-EAU INRAE Montpellier). The participants were asked to spread out in the space while remaining close to each other. They were then asked to give one hand to the person on their right and the other hand to the person on their left.  As each one did so, the participants realized that they were caught in a dense and intricate network of people. Bruno then suggested that they untangle the knots that linked them together without letting go of each other. The outcome might have seemed unlikely, but after a few collaborative efforts and a lot of laughter, the knots almost miraculously untied, bringing all the participants together in a big and joyful round. We entered the venue energized and in good spirit.

Conceptualizing care

The topic of the first session, Conceptualizing care, was based on two papers. The first was presented by sociologist Christelle Gramaglia (UMR G-EAU INRAE Montpellier). It was entitled: “From situated knowledge to care in matters of industrial pollution”. After evoking her research on expert and citizen meteorology of pollution, but also on everyday lives in polluted territories, Christelle returned to the notions of attachments from Actor-Network Theory and that of situated knowledge, defined by Donna Haraway, to explain that it was through these notions that she had begun to take an interest in care. Between approaches on distributed action; critiques of transcendental points of view; the need to favour diverse partial perspectives; and care as attention (in the double sense of the term), there are indeed many links – in suggesting that we deploy knowledge that respects the more-than-human relationships on which we depend, without naivety – to use Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s expression. Christelle ended her presentation by giving two examples drawn from her research on pollution in France and in Spain where experiments, conducted with the populations concerned (not on or for them solely), have made it possible to produce new knowledge that is both scientifically robust and more precautionary than the usual risk assessments.

A second paper was presented by Arianna Tozzi, postdoctoral fellow in geography at the University of Manchester. Her title was “From Matters of Fact to Matters of Care. Reimagining climate-informed Development in drought-affected areas of Maharashtra, India”. After having placed her reflection in the wake of Bruno Latour’s and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s writings on matters of concern and matters of care, Arianna presented her field of study, located in the rainfed regions of Maharashtra (Western India), these are areas that have been bypassed by the green revolution and depend on the monsoon to meet their agriculture needs. While major international organizations in the region promote resilience and adaptation projects as techno-managerial ‘fixes’ to address the challenges of climate change, Arianna Tozzi suggests that seeing these solutions through the lens of care provides a better understanding of the hidden dimensions of the climate crises. Through field examples she suggests how an approach guided by care makes visible the hidden material and emotional labor of farmers who are adapting to a changing climate, and also allow us to engage with the ethics and politics of vulnerability as a state of relatedness and shared fragility in a more-than-human world.

Control and care in irrigation and management

The second session focused on Control and care in irrigation and managemen. Controlling – and regulating – are terms often associated with irrigation (and) management. Two short presentation talked and reflected about whether a more caring approach was possible. Caroline Lejars (UMR G-EAU CIRAD Montpellier) spoke first. She asked the question: Can we ‘care’ for water and ‘manage’ it? Bringing an original point of view from the management sciences, she showed that management sciences are concerned with control and efficiency – not care! Drawing on her empirical research in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the process of decolonization, she initiated a debate on the changes that need to be made to better integrate institutional considerations and relational indigenous cosmologies that make the river not a flow of water to be managed – or controlled – but a person to be looked after and indeed cared for.

Tavengwa Chitata (IHE Delft) reflected on his empirical material from fieldwork in a smallholder irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe. He was participant observer during the cleaning of an overnight storage tank which supplied water to a 25 hectare-big irrigation scheme. After himself helping out and talking with the farmers, nothing could capture the pain, the labor, and the emotions of caring for the tank and flows of water more than a poem. The drudgery involved – far removed from public eyes and being seasonal – is seldom reported. Here personified and read through the eyes of the cleaned tank:

I am sitting here in Rufaro
For I am a gift of happiness to the village of toil
A village of unending use of water and care

Today there is no water in my belly
It’s a day for the framers to thank me, the tank
There is no irrigation taking place
For my belly will be cleaned as the King’s palace

Three men are in my enclave 
In my belly like food, but I won’t chew them
They look tiny compared to my size
I suppose they eat before they jumped into my belly
Otherwise I will lick their energy dry
For I am work, a pain of dirty accumulated over time
But still they care

They are knee deep in my dirty
With their bare feet they answered to call of duty
With their trousers pulled up to their knees, they are ready.
With buckets, shovels and spades in their hands,
They are willing to scrap my bottom clean.

In my belly all day they toil
Look at their hands, disfigured and hardened with labour
Buckets filled with my dirty burden their backs 
Slippery and dangerous is my bottom, but they
 Won’t let go till I am clean

In a sun scotched afternoon, they toiled chattingly
Which later turned to hum sounds of weariness
Nevertheless, they continue cleaning me 
Because they care

Fun how they are not thinking of gaining control over water
They are only enabling other to control the water
Perhaps it’s me – the tank – and the water caring for them
Or maybe we care for each other but

Wetland care

The third speed session was on wetland care. As both fragile and affording eco-systems, actors living with wetlands are dedicated to sustain it while being provided by it. Two presentations explored this relation in the field. Hajar Choukrani (UMR G-EAU CIRAD Montpellier, Institut Agro Montpellier, Hassan II Agronomic and Veterinary Institute), a doctoral student, invited the workshop participants to reflect on the ambivalent status of Moroccan temporary wetlands, called merjas. In mejras people originally engaged in transhumance and pastoralist activities, and later settled and developed local agricultural activities, while policy makers viewed this ecosystem as an unproductive and malefic place. From the early 20th century, the changing view on merjas can be translated as a care for food security mainly. The colonizers had a strategic vision of intensive agricultural development but until now the majority of merjas are in the hands of and being looked after by local communities; because of the complex configuration and hydromorphic soils, merjas could not be captured within irrigated perimeters. Hajar confronted both the discourse on care given by policy makers and the colonizers and the discourse on care delivered by ecologists and scientists who want to protect the wetlands by restoring natural processes, biodiversity and the cultural dimension for local communities. She reminded the participants that care can be vague and unclear, subject to interpretation, and asked how we could better articulate these insights which, at first sight, may seem irreconcilable.

In the final presentation, Andres Verzijl (IHE-Delft), shared some of his fieldwork experiences in the Peruvian Andes – sharing the relational, practical and encompassing kind of care he observed among the communities he worked with. These community members are deeply connected to the bofedales (high-altitude wetlands) on which they raise their animals and let their children play. They too nurture these bofedales; through countless infinitesimal interventions they manipulate water flows and create small lakes and ponds to sustain and improve the wetlands. They do this believing that animals, children and wetlands care for them too. In their world, the whole environment is animated and communicative. The organizing principle in many Andean communities that underlines this mutual relation between humans and other-than-human beings is Uyway (meaning ‘to nurture and to let yourself be nurtured’) – a single word for and applying to humans, animals and water. Yaku uyway (Yaku = water) expresses that water is also an actor that shapes action and that one has to listen too. Water care as enacted in these communities, Andres suggests, is a way of relating to water that is different from modern management. It offers interesting insights also for how scientists and academics can adopt a more caring attitude while doing water research.

Group discussions

After the presentations Margreet Zwarteveen (IHE-Delft, and hosted at the URM G-EAU in Montpellier in 2022), the main organizer of the event “Caring matters in knowing water” thanked the speakers and shortly reflected on the presentations before inviting the participants to divide themselves in three groups to discuss three questions previously formulated by the organizers.

The first group, which included Caroline, Tavengwa and Margreet dealt with the question: What would/should care imply for irrigation and water management sciences?

Group 1 discussed that motivations to care for water and the environment require an attention to the unappreciated, unpaid labor undertaken mostly by women but also by men. It also requires sensitivity to the emotions involved, both of farmers and researchers – this for instance can help (re)orient the way we understand repair and maintenance of infrastructure and water management. 

However, there is need for caution to not depoliticize care and caring, and to remain critically alert to what political objectives the mobilization of a language of care can serve or support. This discussion generated a lot of questions more so than answers – and of particular interest the exploration of whether using the language of care has the potential to transform research and water management.
The second group, which included Hajar and Andres looked at the question: What does care help us to see, document and make sense of in the field?

Group 2, which included many young researchers, discussed on whether or not care should be defined. After all, or so it seemed to several participants, all presentations somehow had a slightly different take on it. Is care something practical or is it more like emotional labor and empathy? Connected to the latter, the group contemplated the role of ideology and who to care for (in the field).

However, this group – aside from wondering about the morality of and ethical positioning by research on – care, also was cautious and reflected on the notion that caring could lead to violence; for example, how caring for the world in terms of food security by exporting food leads to water grabbing and unjust situations. Emphasis was placed on care as a way to understand the other and on being explicit about one’s feelings and alliances in water research writing.
The third group, which included Christelle and Arianna, focused on the question: What would/should care change in academic institutions and lab organization?

Group 3 was particularly sensitive to the asymmetries in the university and their consequences. It noted a number of uncaring practices among colleagues that did not encourage the development of more caring research towards the rest of society and the living world. It pointed out several inequalities of status, gender, career and access to grants, but also the invisibility of work and tasks that matter because they allow relationships to be maintained – without being valued by research institutions and the university.

However, this group did not simply paint an entirely negative picture of care in laboratories and research centers. It noted some positive initiatives that arose from the difficulties generated by the confinement at the time of the covid epidemic, i.e. forms of informal support and solidarity that have been reinvigorated, even at a distance.
Hope was expressed that these comforting practices will continue.

Cite this blog post
Andres Verzijl (2022, December 2). Critically caring for water. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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