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On March 20th as part of the ESRC Festival 2010, The RAI's Education Department organised an event on the HMS President Boat called The Meaning of Water. The event aimed to raise public awareness of the connections between water, conservation and community and topical debates such as the global water crisis,the UK’s dependency on virtual water, and ‘water footprints’.

Through presentations, films and exhibitions, the event explored two main themes: 1) access, advocacy and fresh water management; and 2) sustainability and livelihoods. Case studies of research undertaken by engineers, anthropologists, and environmentalists addressed questions such as: how are communities finding local solutions to water scarcity? In what ways can we decrease our water footprint? What are the repercussions of water being treated as a commodity rather than as a common right?


The Meaning of Water brought together over 200 social scientists, teachers, students and members of the general public who have a shared interest in the future of water resources and concerns for situations where drought, political conflicts, and mismanagement of water affect access. We hope that the event gave participants an understanding of our interdependent relationship with water and highlighted the importance of local solutions to water scarcity and the repercussions of clean water being treated as commodity instead of as a communal good. The event comprised of a combination of exhibitions, presentations, films and Q&A sessions. The event was organised by Nafisa Fera in collaboration with Susanne Hammacher. Thank you to Professor Jeremy MacClancy for acting as moderator for the event and to our team of RAI volunteers and interns who put together exhibitions, assisted with event preperation and running of activities on the day.



Communal Water Dynamics: contestation, change and culture in the Andes
Maria Teresa Armijos (Institute of Development Studies)

As is the case in other Andean countries, water for irrigation and human consumption in the rural areas of Ecuador is managed by local Water User Associations and access to water is directly related to people’s participation in communal activities and work parties. This presentation will show why communal water management is an essential aspect of indigenous and peasant culture in the Ecuadorean Andes. It will examine the aspects of everyday life around water resources: who has access to water, how people use it, what are the factors that lead to competition and cooperation, and how different types of knowledge shape water management.
Take a look at Maria's PPT presentation.


The Right to Water is the Right to Life
Nicola Gibb (Water Aid)

Safe water and sanitation are fundamental to life and everyone has a right to these basic services. However, one in eight people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water and two in five people do not have adequate sanitation. Compounded by a lack of good hygiene practices, the result is extreme poverty and ill health among millions of people that is readily preventable.  WaterAid is an international non governmental organisation. Our mission is to transform lives by working with local people to improve access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world's poorest communities. Water Aid works by active involvement in water and sanitation projects in rural and urban areas and by advocacy and lobbying of governments to promote the allocation of resources.


Local Meanings of Irrigation Water: property rights and irrigation in Australia and S.E. Spain
Denise Galvin (Universidad de Alicante)

Abstract: Physical and socio-economic changes during recent decades have altered the spatial distribution of global water resources.  In areas where there was once considered to be an abundance of water, superficial and groundwater resources are now either over-exploited or contaminated.  To resolve this dilemma, many nations are in the process of reforming their water industries.  In many countries, the irrigation industry is often the first to under-go reform because it is where a high percentage of a nation’s water resources are diverted.  There are many examples where the reform of this industry is directed by a new philosophy based on the re-allocation of water rights in the hope that this will support increased user participation. Documented experience points to the fact that irrigation water is best managed with a high degree of input from irrigators.  The problem is that management paradigms and policy dialogues based on property rights are not much more than a cacophony of environmental expert discourses based on misleading theory which blocks infiltration by those who manage the resource at the local level.  

Reconfiguring Access to Water in Cities
Sarah Bell (UCL Environment Institute) 
Modern urban water systems were designed to improve public health and have developed to provide an endless supply of water to private homes, bathrooms and other spaces. Water is central to everyday practices such bathing, laundry and toilet flushing, yet is largely invisible and taken for granted. These everyday uses of water are only possible because of the large-sale, centralised engineering systems that abstract water from the environment, treat it and distribute it across our cities. This model of water provision is reaching environmental limits. Engineers can no longer simply build bigger systems to abstract more water from the environment in order to meet increasing demand. New models of provision of water based on reducing demand, recycling water and using locally collected water are emerging in urban design and engineering. These changes in technology will change the role of water in our everyday lives and will be part of changing urban water cultures and institutions in the future.


Local Solutions, Empowerment and Water Scarcity in the Middle East
Joshka Wessels (Geographer, Media & Communication Specialist, Filmmaker) 

This presentation is based on the experience of Joshka Wessels working as an ethnographic documentary filmmaker on various water projects in the Middle East. She researched the concept of collective action in the rehabilitation of ancient water systems in Syria and is currently working with UNESCO on rehabilitating ancient water systems in Northern Iraq which she is currently documenting on film. For the EU, she also documented on film several research and development activities on empowering end-users in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. The lessons learned from empowerment have lead to a general empowerment theory to tackle water scarcity at the grassroots level. But will all this lead to a sustainable future in the region? Is it going to be "water wars" or "waterpeace"?


Virtual Water and Water Footprinting: understanding the impacts of agricultural water use
Robert Lillywhite (University of Warwick)
Seventy percent of global fresh water is used to grow agricultural crops but the impacts of using water are different depending on crop type, location and local water resources. The concept of virtual water (the water used to grow and process the crop, not the water contained in the crop) was introduced to try and understand how world trade in agricultural products could help water-poor countries by allowing them to import water-rich products from water-rich countries.  This allows water-poor countries to reserve their water for drinking and sanitation. Water footprinting builds on this concept and calculates the volume of water required to grow and process agricultural products. Current development of water footprinting methodology is aimed at assessing the environmental and social impacts of water use within local areas.


Traditional Knowledge and Responses to the ‘Water Crisis’
 Dr. Raj Puri (University of Kent)

Using examples from anthropological studies in Morocco, India and Bali, Dr Puri will discuss what kinds of water knowledge local people hold and some of the opportunities and problems in learning from and/or incorporating this knowledge into water management policy and responses to the ‘water crisis’.



Agricultural Diversification in Rural Wales: From organic milk to ‘organic’ water  
Dr. Samantha Hurn (University of Wales Lampeter)

This presentation is based on Sam Hurn's nine years of ethnographic experience conducting fieldwork in a rural Welsh farming community. One feature which has regularly surfaced during interviews with local farmers is the need to diversify in order to make a sustainable livelihood. However, successful diversification is contingent on a whole host of variables, from acquiring a new skills set, finding and developing a market and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring that the local environmental conditions can support rather than hinder the diversification activity. Wales is renowned for its high levels of rainfall, and this can prove to be a crucial factor in determining whether or not agricultural diversification is successful. Through consideration of several case studies this presentation will explore the conflicting meanings of water for farmers and agricultural diversification in West Wales.   


People, Water and Engineering – Public Perspectives on Water and Why They Matter

Dr. Liz Sharp (University of Bradford)
Water is such a habituated part of our daily lives that we seldom give it much thought. When prompted, however, it becomes apparent that many people do value water deeply, both for the experiences it provides in their home, and for its role in the wider environment.  This presentation will draw on three research projects to reflect on what it is that people think about water and whether and how these perceptions enter into engineers’ and water company’ actions with respect to water management.



Water Through Time and Place: A photo exhibition which explored the topics of Livelihoods and Sustainability, Trade and Transport, Management and Access and Religion and Spirituality through the RAI's archival collection. Take a look at the gallery online!




The Meaning of Water Photo Contest:  Photos from the RAI's international photo competition which received over 200 entries from 20 countries in the world. Take at our photo gallery online!





Bottled Water vs. Tap Water: Can you taste the difference? : This exhibit aimed at engaging participants in thinking about the environmental impact of bottled water and dispel myths about the cleanliness and taste of tap water.

Virtual Water: the hidden water behind everyday products: This exhibit aimed to explain the concept of virtual water and visually demonstrate the water that goes into producing products such as coffee, jeans, paper and meat.

Exploring Water Through Animation: This exhibit looked at how cartoonists explored issues regarding access and management of water around the world.

Traditions of Water Festivals around the World: This exhibit looked at international water celebrations.






 Take a look at our Event Photo Gallery on Flickr

Details of the event can also be found in the following publicity:

The Meaning of Water Programme

The Meaning of Water Flyer

Speakers Biographies