Research Priorities

The plenary of the I International Meeting of the Network, titled “The Political Ecology of Water in Latin America: defining a research strategy”, discussed and approved the General Themes and Research Priorities of the Network. The meeting took place in Barcelona on 14-16 October 2009. The Themes and Priorities have been discussed and confirmed during the Internal Meetings of the Network held regularly.

General themes that provide the framework for WATERLAT-GOBACIT’s research priorities:

1) The capitalist character of water government and management. The fact that the central dynamic that increasingly structures the activities related with water government and management worldwide is given by the process of capital accumulation. Considerations such as environmental unsustainability and injustice are subordinated to the dominant dynamics of the accumulation process.

2) The genesis of defencelessness* in relation to water. Human beings are exposed to a wide range of dangers and hazards related with the way water is governed and managed, which are derived from a number of causes such as the lack of access to water and water services or the exposure to natural or anthropogenic phenomena such as floods, droughts, or water pollution. The awareness of such potential dangers and hazards and the increasing human capacity for anticipation, prediction and measurement of such problems are encapsulated in the concept of risk, which in this context can be termed “water risk”. In WATERLAT-GOBACIT we are interested not only in the study of human vulnerability and fragility in relation to such dangers and hazards but more fundamentally in the processes that produce the defencelessness affecting wide sectors of the population in relation to these threats to human life.

3) Confronting social defencelessness: the construction of alternatives for the use, management and control of water. The construction of alternatives understood as a complex social process resulting both from planned, intentional initiatives, as well as from “blind” dynamics, unplanned and often random. The construction of alternatives neither necessarily entails a positive or negative value nor can be conceived as a mechanic or linear process, given that the alternatives may have unforeseen effects and may either fail or be successful in producing the desired transformations.


* While “vulnerability” implies the propensity to be wounded or suffer attacks and “fragility” is the quality or state of a thing that can be easily broken or destroyed, “defencelessness” incorporates the social dimension of the problem: it is the property of human beings lacking the means to defend themselves, that is, of being disarmed.

Research priorities of the WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network

1. The political dimension and water conflicts

The need to challenge and re-politicise the dominant discourses related to water government and management. For example, the discourse of “climate change adaptation” (why is it the poor that have to adapt?), or the discourse of “payment for environmental services”.

The conflict over food sovereignty and the problem posed by the advance of monocultures (conflicts over water uses, soils, biota, etc.)

The relation between conflict and participatory governance in relation to water (e.g. the contradiction between empowerment and demobilization resulting from participatory processes). Developing an empirical mapping of such conflicts.

Existing or potential international water conflicts.

The study of water infrastructure as an actor (the infrastructure as an anthropological, social work, as an embodiment of social power norms).

The organization of alternatives for water government and management and their co-optation. Resisting and dominant forms of multiculturalism in relation to water.

Examining water policy trends and the conflicts associated with them.

The paradox resulting from the increasing recognition of the “politicization” of the aquatic environment and its simultaneous depoliticization in practice.

Studying water conflicts. Themes of environmental justice (languages of valuation), power relations, causes of the conflicts.

2. The dimension of public policies, legislation and administration

The social and environmental consequences of the instruments of water “governance” (laws, administrative mechanisms, etc.)

The public and community management of water (the role of the state, the processes of democratic participation and social control).

Local initiatives as de facto decentralization processes, such as community organized and run local water services.

The role and incidence (strategies, etc.) of social movements in the formulation and implementation of water and sanitation policies.

The challenges and opportunities confronting the creation and recuperation of public water and sanitation utilities.

The social impact of financing in the water sector. Are we undergoing a transition from managing water as a resource towards the management of water enterprises?

The wide variety of experiments in the self-government of water, looking for a rigorous description of “real” alternatives.

Monitoring and follow up of laws and public policies (e.g. creation of observatories of public water services, etc.)

Monitoring and follow up of extreme water events (e.g. climate change impacts).

Water sector planning at the national and local levels.

Comparative studies of the “language” used by the international organizations in relation to the government and management of water.

Diagnosis of water risks and identification of the “interlocutor” in the process.

The problems posed by human settlements in fragile ecological areas.

The government and management of transboundary waters.

Water security.

3. The production and control of water knowledge

The role of science, especially the water management sciences. How this knowledge is developed and applied (a critique of the pretension of neutrality).

A critique of water “expertocracy”.

The incidence of academics in the formulation and implementation of water policy at the local level.
The relation between the academy and non academic social actors in relation to water .

The systematic record of experiences and the production of original knowledge in the resolution of problems related with water management.

The development of a political ecology of water that may transcend the “nature-society” disciplinary divides.

How social and political configurations affect the government and management of water.