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Water, Society, Ecologies

Back in September last year I had the privilege of participating in a PhD course hosted jointly by the University of Aarhus and the University of Cape Town. From the course description:

Attending to the centrality of water to colonial expansion, the neoliberal trend towards privatising water services and access, and the relative invisibility of water in contemporary political economy, the course works with the materiality of water — liquid flows around hard surfaces; flows through bodies; urban streams and oceans; urban biogeochemistries — to develop in-depth critical thinking skills about water, its many political, social and economic framings, and their enactment in water-related infrastructures.

The course aims to offer a space in which graduates integrate social theory with water and its flows through bodies, rocks, rivers, economies, politics and society. It aims to explore different disciplinary knowledges and conceptualisations of water, and different ways of understanding both the histories and the futures of water. 


With such a fascinating description it’s no surprise that this was a brilliant course, with fantastic participants and coordinators. As part of it – as travel to Denmark wasn’t possible – I focused my assignments on a body of water closer to home, the Union Canal. However, due to Covid quarantining I wasn’t even able to go there – so I wrote about it using a mixture of memory, google maps and online searching. Given the limited engagement I was quite happy with the results.

Research in progress
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wetland

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Presentation season

A short presentation exploring the idea of constructed wetland habitat
Presentation to the CEH student seminar explaining the ‘constructed wetland rationale’ chapter of my PhD
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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.