Testing the waters of global perception

ASU project hopes to uncover workable water conservation, distribution strategies

In January 2000, the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, signed a deal to privatize its water supply. Protests erupted with such intensity they became known as la Guerra del Agua — the Water War. Handing over utility rights to the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation caused water prices to spike dramatically. Thousands of people were left unable to afford the new rates. They flooded the streets, took over the central plaza and demanded removal of the private company’s hold on their water.

As time went on, protests continued and the situation in Cochabamba progressively worsened. Roads to and from the city were sealed off as the national government declared martial law. Protesters took on the Bolivian army, refusing to back down. They claimed that access to affordable water is a human right, and they wanted it back. Many went to prison or into hiding, and some were killed.

Three months went by before the Bolivian government agreed to protesters’ demands. On April 10, officials reassigned control of the water supply to La Coordinadora, a grassroots coalition that had sprung up in response to the privatization agreement. This was a great victory for the people, but far from the end of their water woes.

Living on the brink

Several years after the onset of the Water War, Amber Wutich traveled to Cochabamba for her doctoral research. She lived in a squatter settlement there for more than a year, working with locals to study water-scarcity issues. Many people in the area were struggling enormously to meet their basic needs.

“Some of them barely had enough water to survive, which is 15 liters per person per day,” said Wutich, now an associate professor in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.That 15-liter (about 4 gallons) estimate comes from the World Health Organization and includes the most basic food and hygiene needs. To put things in perspective, a 10-minute shower requires about 19 liters of water.  

“I saw people wait for hours to collect two buckets of water from a community system. I saw people miss work and run behind water vendors’ trucks, begging them to sell their families a barrel of water,” she said.

Wutich recalls when her field team went out to take photos at a nearly dry riverbed. Upstream, she saw taxi drivers use what little water was available to wash their vehicles and then dump the used water back into the river. A little way downstream, Wutich saw a man use the riverbed as a makeshift latrine. Down even further, the group observed some women and girls washing their family’s clothes in the same water. And downstream still was a mother bathing her toddlers.

“This illustrates how many dimensions of the water problem — absolute water scarcity, inadequate water treatment, the absence of institutions governing the uses of the river, extreme poverty — all added up to create significant personal hardships and health risks for people living in the squatter settlement,” Wutich said.

Watery deserts, thirsty tropics

After completing her doctoral research, Wutich accepted a research position at ASU and moved to Tempe. She thought relocating to the desert would allow her to continue investigating the water-shortage issues she encountered in Bolivia. However, Wutich quickly realized that although the desert is geographically water scarce, households largely are not.

“The kinds of questions I had been asking were not at all relevant here. It was a big shock to me,” Wutich said.

This is just one example of the many ways that attitudes, perceptions and experiences related to water can vary tremendously across cultures. In the academic world, this is called ethnohydrology, a field that seeks to understand the shared norms, knowledge and human universals about water.

Working with her colleague Alexandra Brewis-Slade, a President's Professor and director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU, Wutich initiated the Global Ethnohydrology Study (GES). GES is a multi-year, multi-site, interdisciplinary research project. Since 2006, the project has engaged undergraduate and graduate-level students and conducted cross-cultural research primarily in four locations: Bolivia, the U.S. (Phoenix), New Zealand and Fiji.

These sites were chosen based on Wutich and Brewis-Slade’s research expertise. The locations also have attributes that make them interesting for cross-cultural comparison. For example, Arizona is water scarce in that it’s a desert, but resource rich in that there are relatively good systems in place to make sure everyone has access to water. On the flip side, Fiji has an abundance of water but lacks the infrastructure to distribute it to those in need.

The goal of GES is to understand how beliefs around water access evolve in different cultural contexts. By comparing the experiences of different cultures, Wutich and her colleagues hope to learn what conservation and distribution strategies have worked in the past and which ones have failed.

This information is important to have — now more than ever. Experts predict that by 2050, more than half the world’s population will live in water-scarce areas, and about a billion people won’t have enough water to survive. That’s like the entire population of Africa dying of thirst.

Just solutions

One of the main areas of GES research focuses on fairness in water access across cultures. Wutich says rationing water in a country is like allocating salary within a company. At work, people care about the amount of money they get and whether it seems fair compared with their co-workers. Anthropologists call this idea distributive justice.

Employees also want the rules that govern income distribution to be fair. This is known as procedural justice. In the context of rationing water, these concepts are important to people everywhere, regardless of whether their country is water scarce or has plenty of resources.   

But there is another type of justice — interactional justice — that researchers have found matters more in some cultures than others. To understand interactional justice, imagine you are asking your boss for a raise. She listens to your pitch, pauses for a moment and then starts laughing. You try to explain why a pay bump is reasonable, but she simply rolls her eyes and says, “You’ll get a raise when I become president of the United States. How does that sound?” You leave her office feeling dejected and personally discriminated against.

Now imagine that instead of a raise, you were asking for water. In places like Cochabamba where many people don’t have enough water to survive, interactional justice becomes very important, and that type of discrimination is the most hurtful.

“It’s not just important to understand how much water an institution or society is distributing. It’s also important to consider — if I’m a water supplier deciding that you’re not going to get enough water to feed your child or to bathe your family — how am I telling you that? How am I acting toward you when I say that?” Wutich explained.

Water paths

Another research project within GES explores the water solutions people support in different environments. Wutich breaks solutions down into hard paths — things that involve engineering and infrastructure, like building a water-treatment plant, and soft paths — such as education or social strategies, like a family collecting rainwater.  

In the low-resource, water-scarce sites like Cochabamba, Wutich says people are completely tapped out on soft-path solutions.

“Anything they could self-organize to do, any way they could change their behavior to accommodate low water quality or low water provision, they’ve already done,” she said.

Asking a struggling Bolivian family to conserve water by washing their clothes less often would be like asking a single mom of three to pick up a third job — not physically possible. In Cochabamba and other low-resource areas, communities have done all they can to be resourceful and efficient. They are now in need of hard-path solutions to make sustainable water access a reality.

However, soft-path solutions are a great option in the wealthier research sites like Phoenix and New Zealand. Wutich and her colleagues have found there is public support in developed countries for inexpensive and flexible strategies, such as improved education around water issues.

One way to conserve fresh water is to re-use wastewater. However, many people have the same gut reaction to drinking wastewater as they do to eating bugs. There is a “yuck factor” that can be difficult to overcome. Part of that visceral reaction comes from a learned cultural norm, Wutich says. If a water solution is to be successful, it must take into account the people it aims to serve. That’s why cross-cultural ethnohydrology research is critical.

“Maybe instead of exporting our solutions, we need to be thinking about importing solutions that are coming from other societies,” Wutich said.

For example, take the Bolivian squatter settlement. Living without enough water has forced them to make every drop count — often more than once. This can be detrimental, as with the mother using dirty river water to bathe her toddler. But it can also provide lessons on how we can all be more efficient.

“For example, clean water there is used to wash laundry. Once that water is soapy and mildly dirty, it is reused to do a first scrub of bathrooms or floors. Once that washing is over, the dirty water is pushed out the door and into yards to water plants,” Wutich says.

Meanwhile, households in the U.S. send all their used water down the drain.

“Better graywater reuse systems could help us reuse this water more efficiently for tasks like gardening,” Wutich said.

GES findings like these can bring perspectives from one culture into solutions for another, helping us work more effectively together to conserve our most precious resource.

Learn more about water research at ASU. 

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Knowledge Enterprise Development

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