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Introducing the research

The entanglement of different waters, places and living beings, is what makes water research so interesting. Water appears differently in each assemblage, with different biochemical properties, cultural meanings and capacity to shape naturecultures.

While the motion and flow of water is important, water is far more than an inert substance moving from place to place. All the lively chemistry of the biosphere takes place in a watery medium. Our bodies hold water, as do the bodies of trees, crabs, fish and birds. Water is life, as the Standing Rock water defenders explained. This is why human projects direct water, why an array of infrastructures adjust the classic hydrological cycle of clouds, to land, to river, to ocean. It’s necessary, to keep crops alive, and to quench our thirst. 

The interweaving of human societies with various waters create and reproduce, what human geographers have named hydrosocial cycles.

Wastewater is one aspect of these hydrosocial cycles. For my research I’m defining wastewater as any water that has been used in human activity. In being used, it is transformed, picking up an array of biochemical compounds (the waste part of this compound word). This transformed water goes on to impact people and the broader living world that we are part of.

How can I research the social-ecological processes by which humans and wastewaters interact? How can I situate my research in a broader world of human and more-than-human relations? 

Water has long been a focus of interdisciplinary study. Both natural science and social sciences have plenty to say about how water acts, but it’s not always clear how these different knowledges can combine. With my PhD I attempt this interdisciplinary merger. Interdisciplinary research is not a simple mixing together of different disciplines. What separates disciplines is not only the focus of study, but basic philosophical assumptions about how research should be done. 

To navigate these interdisciplinary waters, I am orienting my research around cognate fields. Cognate fields are disciplines that I take inspiration from. My key cognate fields are more-than-human geography and political ecology. I believe these are some of the best approaches for studying the entangled worlds of water. 

Mapping the disciplines that feed into my research
Mapping the disciplines that feed into my research

More-than-human geography is an emerging current within human geography, as part of a cross-disciplinary concept of multispecies studies. The motivating idea is that human action, always occurs in symphony with a broader world of other living beings, as well as technologies and artifacts. These more-than-human actors all have the ability to shape social worlds, and do not act as purely a mechanical backdrop to human actions. This insight is very relevant for examining water infrastructures.

Political ecology is a field of research which interrogates connections between ecological processes and social and political dynamics. One of the foundational texts of political ecology research challenged standard narratives about deforestation, showing how these stories suited certain political positions, but did not align with the real economic and ecological dynamics of land cover change. Political ecologists work for socio-political liberation, as well as ecological flourishing. 

After identifying and familiarising myself with cognate fields, my next step has been to develop a conceptual framework. A conceptual framework is a tool for analysis – it organises my ideas about what is relevant for studying water. It also connects to a broader literature. My conceptual framework is the ‘(waste) waterscape’. This develops the waterscape concept first elaborated by Eric Swyngedouw. I will use this concept as a way of describing all the social and ecological complexity of wastewater. I will apply this framework in studies at three locations; two rural villages in India, and one rural community in Scotland.  

To explore these wastewaterscapes I also need a lens. Something to draw boundaries, and orient the study. Trying to describe the full complexity of a wastewaterscape is an impossible task! For my research, I am focusing on the concept of ‘benefits’. My research question is ‘how are benefits produced?’. This is a more interesting question than ‘what are the benefits?’.  The kind of answer I’m hoping to give is one that recognises that both social and ecological processes are required to realise a benefit, and that these processes are entangled in many ways. 

Why is benefits a useful lens?  Firstly, benefits links with ‘nature-based solutions’ approaches which often emphasise #MultipleBenefits (and related concepts such as ecosystem services). Yet, many of the examples I have seen simply name the benefits that could be present, without exploring how they are actually brought about and sustained. Secondly, a focus on benefits aligns with the discipline of political ecology. The question of “cui bono?” is always relevant in the linking of people and ecologies. Different actors bring their own priorities to infrastructure. Finally, benefits are speculative. Some benefits are identified or hoped for, they may not eventuate. By exploring how benefits are produced I am also asking ‘what could be?’.

I am focusing on how three key benefits, which I have identified through my initial field visits and literature. These are improved water quality, resource production and habitat for non-human beings.

I will also examine the ways that wastewater infrastructures are enrolled in broader political projects, including water conservation, cleanliness and the production of science. 

For each of these benefits I am using a bespoke mixture of methods to identify and understand the processes involved in their production. I’ll be connecting each benefit with relevant theories and hypotheses. The aim is to tell a story of how both social and ecological processes allow or impede the realisation of benefits. I’ll say more about each of these benefits, and how I will be researching them in future writing. 

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The nature of Nature-based Solutions

Talk presented at the POLLEN political ecology conference, 22-25 September 2020. The bibliography for the talk is attached below.

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Producing wetland resources

My focus on wetland resources is grounded in the resource production possibilities that have been identified by the actors at each site. In contrast to multifaceted definitions of water quality, resource production seems easier to pin down. 

Following my overall approach to constructed wetland, my guiding question is ‘how are resources produced in the constructed wetlands infrastructure?’. Perhaps even more so that with water quality improvements, the answer to this question needs to weave together biophysical and political-economic processes. As with water quality, ‘producing’ each of these resources involves more than just material transformations. Questions of ownership and political/legal authority are an inseparable part of resource production processes. 

Three particular resources emerge from my case studies

  • Water itself (for reuse in various processes)
  • Vegetation grown within the wetland (used for aesthetic or biomass purposes)
  • Aquaculture (using treated water in the pond)

The social research of this chapter leads to two further questions. The first question is the classic one of political ecology ‘who benefits?’ How is the material or financial flow from these resources distributed? And related to this: who is responsible for the care and attention required? What rules must be followed, or ignored? In short, how does the production of resources intersect with power relations at these sites.

The second, and perhaps more important, question is ‘Why?’ In most wastewaterscapes, wastewater infrastructures are expected only to transform water quality. So why has making these wetlands productive become a focus? What were the sociotechnical imaginaries that made resource production part of these projects? Why did ecological processes become enlisted in creating resources/commodities? 

Apart from occasional harvesting of willow from the Scottish wetland site, resource production has so far been an unachievable goal at each of my study sites. But it was (and still is) a goal. The potential for resource production was part of how these projects were conceptualised. Therefore, part of the work for this research question is tracing where and when different ideas of resource production come into these waterscape histories, and what impact they may have on shaping outcomes. Due to a lack of actually-produced resources, the methods for this research tend towards interviews and text analysis. 

The ecological side of this chapter is strengthened by asking what resources can come from wetlands, why wetlands are well suited for producing certain resources, and what biophysical conditions (eg. water quality, temperature, hydrology) are required for certain resources. 

The summary above is dense with questions! I hope that by following these threads, through interviews, reports and observation ‘on-the-ground’ I can tie together the social and ecological sides of resource production, in a way that explains how and why the production of water, vegetation or fisheries was a success or failure at each of my research sites.

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Understanding water quality

A simple definition of water quality is easy: water quality refers to the biochemical properties of a given water. Improving water quality is the purpose of constructed wetlands – in the eyes of their designers and builders. 

Where the picture becomes complicated is in judging this water quality improvement. Which properties of water are most crucial? How do we judge the values of these properties as good or poor, adequate or sub-standard? I would argue there’s no final judgement possible on whether the constructed wetlands have improved water quality, only situated knowledges, reflecting different water uses and priorities.

We could start with local understandings of water quality, as I understand them after a series of interviews in both study villages. What emerges are judgments made primarily through sensory perception. Taste, smell and sight are key for judging good from poor water quality. However, these judgements are also mediated through the technologies/objects of cooking and water storage.  And the impact of water upon human and non-human bodies is also important: health impacts, impact upon crops, and the linking of mosquitoes and dirty water. Finally, knowledge of what is in the water (eg. sewage) feeds into water quality judgements, as well as the results from sporadic water quality testing. These water quality judgements are shared through complex social networks. As a result water quality knowledge is uncertain, and this uncertainty is recognised. 

Approaching water quality through literature, I’ve developed the framework in the table below.

… for people… for a more-than-human world
Harm based stand-ard Presence of pathogens, heavy metals and other toxic substances. Non-toxic levels of nutrients, heavy metals and other toxic substances. Temperature. 
Use based stand-ard

Requirements for irrigation reuse, drinking water supply downriver.Adequate quality and flow patterns for life-processes.

Harm based standards apply to any water that is being ‘wasted’ i.e. released back ‘into the environment’. They consider the impact that this water would have on people and other beings that might encounter this water as it continues to circulate. In the use-based case, good water quality indicates that the water is suitable for a particular purpose. In this case, the specific purpose intended for the water will determine how water quality is judged. For example, this approach covers drinking water standards, irrigation water, and water for aquaculture. Thinking through these two categories shows that they are not necessarily distinct. However, use-based standards pay more attention to the future of water.

The second axis is whether water quality standards focus on human use/impact only, or if they are responsible to a broader ecological community. For example, E. coli is a water quality parameter of concern because it indicates that fecal bacteria are being transmitted through water flows, this is a public health concern. On the other hand, biological oxygen demand (BOD) indicates how much organic matter is in water, and so how much oxygen would be depleted from the water as this organic matter is decomposed. This loss of oxygen has cascading ecological impacts. 

However, standards are not the only way that a scientific judgement of water quality improvement is made. Within my case study locations, efficiency is also a crucial discourse, and one that aligns with the scientific literature on constructed wetlands.

Whether judging standards or efficiency, water quality is measured by a whole range of technical equipment and standards: BOD bottles, Colilert trays, ion sensitive electrodes, Oxitop meters, Ion spectrometers, portable handheld meters, UV light box, American Public Health Association standard methods. These techniques have histories of development that link them to particular places. For example, the incubation time of the biological oxygen demand test (5 days), was decided in the early days of water quality testing based on the maximum length of English rivers. After five days, water in an English river will have reached the sea, and so no longer be a concern. This example suggests that results must be treated carefully to be relevant to the wastewaterscapes at my site. My approach here is strongly influenced by the work of scholars in STS (science and technology studies).

This introduction to water quality demonstrates why the definition of benefits is an important part of the research task. The complicated processes of meaning-making around a benefit must be folded into understanding how a benefit is produced.

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waterscape benefits

A focus on benefits was nested in this research project from the initial proposal. This focus aligns with a discourse about multiple benefits; a key theme in the literature on Nature-Based Solutions. Benefits, in this context, are the positive outcomes that flow from socio-ecological processes. Benefits can accrue to both human and non-human beings. The argument is that, in contrast to more traditional grey infrastructure, infrastructure incorporating ecosystem processes can provide more than just one central function. I think that this is an interesting argument to interrogate. 

I am using the concept of a waterscape as this concept captures an important point about how social and ecological arrangements are shaped through water flows. The waterscape reflects the interplay of both material and representational processes. 

What does this mean for benefits? From my perspective, benefit creation can’t be understood as only a material process. Equally important are the processes of meaning making and the social imaginaries that decide which benefits are important and how these benefits are defined and measured. In other words, benefits don’t exist independently of the variety of social actors who create or recognise them. 

This perspective on benefits aligns with a social constructionist way of approaching environments, as is common in political ecology accounts. This approach suggests my research must be open to multiple ways that benefits can be understood. Rather than developing a definition of each benefit solely from literature, dictionaries or my own judgement (and then going out to measure these benefits), I believe these definitions need to be uncovered as part of the research process. Each benefit has its own champions and interested actors. Its own method, scientific practices, and relevant disciplines. Each benefit has its own discourses and entanglements with larger ideas.

In the next few I will describe the benefits that I am focusing my research on, and how I have come to understand them. These descriptions are the result of several visits to each site, conversations with local people, and engagement with the documentation and discussions around each project. 

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DIY waterscape

When I was growing up our family farm had a couple of springs, where water bubbled out of the hillside. One of these fed a pond. Another became a tiny stream.

At some point I decided to reshape this waterscape. I dug out a little basin at the spring, and used the mud I’d dug out to build a tiny dam, perhaps 20cm high, across the stream, keeping the water in my tiny pond. As a finishing touch, I planted the new dam with some reeds, hoping that their roots would stabilise my construction. My very first encounter with ecological engineering!

The photos above show that similar micro-scale adjustments also shape wastewater flows in one of my study villages.

Digging in the dirt is enough to send water off in another direction.

Baked earth bricks, cemented with mud try to convince the water to flow into the wetland

A handful of stones and some mud steer water off the road and into a vegetable garden

Priyanka Jamwal at ATREE taught me the concept of jugaad, a nice term for creative and frugal innovation. These waterscape adjustments seem like good examples. As the final image shows, such small changes can have important impacts.