DSA-ESRC Workshop series
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
Interdisciplinary research for global development
Water and Sustainable Development
Our 6th workshop, hosted by the University of Bradford, focused on water. The workshop was made up of four panel sessions, comprising short presentations followed by discussion. The panel topics were: Water, power and sustainability: Systems thinking and conceptualizing new possibilities; From conflicts to cooperation; Water and public health; and Water and sustainable cities.
UK based researchers and scholars from the Global South (7 speakers; 5 discussants; 34 participants) came together to deliberate over the challenges of water and sustainable development. The discussions covered water scarcity, politics, corruption, transboundary interests, international laws, tourism, gender, health, capacity building and development cooperation, with the objective of ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The workshop was well attended by Masters students, who also led one of the sessions.
As with the other workshops, as well as exploring the specific challenges of water and sustainable development, the intention was to draw out wider lessons for interdisciplinary working. Several points emerged from the discussions:
Taking the time to change mindsets
Water management is traditionally dominated by scientific and engineering specialisms. One speaker described her experience of joining a global agency’s water program as the only non-engineer in the team. This changed over time, as it was recognised that other disciplines were essential in finding solutions to complex problems. This approach was then communicated to other agency partners, who also began to change their approach to a multi-disciplinary one. However, such change requires a shift in mindset and it takes time to build up trust and understanding between disciplines.
Valuing different types of data
Working across disciplines means adapting to different research methods, including the type of data collected and methods for analysis. One speaker who would normally work with qualitative data discussed the importance of also using quantitative analysis for certain audiences, who were more comfortable with and therefore more receptive to arguments accompanied by numbers rather than case studies. While this does require adapting to a different approach, it was also acknowledged that using different methodologies can help researchers to think about their own work from a different perspective, and therefore lead to new avenues of research.
A theme which emerged from several presentations was the importance of interpretation. We might assume that the biggest challenge with water is its scarcity, but is it in fact inequity in the distribution of supply which really causes the problems? One speaker discussed the impact of tourism in Bali. Despite suffering from poor water quality and interrupted supplies, local people do not blame tourism for this as they have never been into the hotels to see how the water is being used, or are aware of tourist luxuries like spas and swimming pools. As with the other workshops, these discussions emphasised the importance of incorporating a social science perspective into planning and decision making, so that the social context of projects is considered alongside the engineering solutions.
Development for political reasons
Most researchers working in development are concerned with overcoming social challenges and improving lives. But as was discussed in several of the workshops including this one, big development projects aren’t always driven by the local population’s best interests. In this workshop, the topic of dams was discussed. There has been a resurgence in major dam building, but the size and scale of these tend to be determined by factors other than what is most needed by the local population. The environmental and social impacts of these massive infrastructure projects can be devastating, but these impacts are often forgotten in the need to demonstrate political power, technical leadership and competitive advantage. Input from social scientists into such projects can encourage questioning around how such projects should be managed, and whether they should happen at all – but the challenge for social scientists is to make their voices heard.
Dr Eko Priyo Purnomo of Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta Indonesia, discusses how his project looking at fair access to water and sanitation will need to draw on multi-disciplinary expertise
Dr Lena Salame describes her involvement with Unesco’s International Hydrological Program, which has helped to change mindsets so that it is no longer conceivable to take a mono-disciplinary approach to water management.
Dr Stroma Cole of the University of the West of England recalls how using shock tactics encouraged people to listen to her research findings and recognise the issue of unfair access to water in Bali.
Dr Stroma Cole of the University of the West of England explains why she felt it was important to have quantitative data to back up her qualitative research when writing an impact case study.
University of Bradford student Omar Wright explains how learning about work in one sector can complement his own research, leading to better solutions.