Engaging Science for Inclusive Water Governance: A Q&A with environmental anthropologist Heather O’Leary

In recognition of World Water Day 2018, in this post, we speak with Dr. Heather O’Leary, an environmental anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, about citizen science and how water researchers can engage with marginalized communities to improve water quality. Her article “Engaging Science for Inclusive Water Governance: An engaged ethnographic approach to WaSH data collection in Delhi, India” publishes soon in UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment.

UC Press: Tell us a little about the informal settlements, or “slums,” of Delhi, India where you conducted your water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) research.

Heather O’Leary: My research shows how we can use water as a lens to demonstrate core challenges and opportunities to sustainable urban development. One of my research questions has always been: How do different development patterns challenge people’s relationship to critical life-giving natural resources, like water? In Asia’s booming megacities, like many cities worldwide, people make deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about who belongs and what they are entitled to—and this is evident through measurable, material contexts, like water quantities and qualities.

Women share a hose at a community standpipe.

In Delhi, I examined three interstitial sites—places “in-between”—where the answers to questions about water are presumed to be known without any formal scientific verification. Of these sites, rapidly transforming demographic and infrastructures of informal “slum” communities showed dynamic transformations between people by using water as a sign of upward mobility.

Many people who in-migrate to cities are seeking a better life, or are being pushed into cities from areas with lesser access to opportunities and resources. New trajectories of upward mobility can be both indicated by new access to water and new practices of water use. But a lot of the water acquired in informal settlement communities is either not legal or hard to come by, since deliveries to squatter residents are not well supported by the larger urban community. Typically, residents of legal homes get a few hours of water pressure through municipal pipes each day. In some communities, wells and public standpipes are also sources of water. The Delhi Jal Board (the municipal water organization) also sends tanker-trucks of water to roadside pickup points. Tankers are sent to informal communities that the city does not want to legitimize with civic infrastructure and also in relief situations—for wealthy communities in times of scarcity or to poor, informal neighborhoods with a population spike. Access to water is precious and signals a lot about where and how a person fits into the narrative of the city.

So, as you can imagine, people are hesitant to talk about even the most mundane aspects of water collection and storage. Essentially, they risk losing a precious leg-up they have in a city not entirely hospitable to them. This is one reason why, in my WaSH research, I collaborate with residents to discover, in their own words, how do they determine who belongs to a city.

For instance, by what magical transformation do recent in-migrants demonstrate they are now city-folk, and how does water sourced from the countryside and deep wells become the most salient symbol of urban contemporary life? Because this question is hard to measure through words alone, residents use water access as a proxy for deeper, ineffable cultural issues that mediate millions of peoples’ relationship to the people and resources around them. The research presented in my CSE article gives a snapshot of one way to improve research techniques in informal communities. It was collected over 18 continuous months of fieldwork in Delhi as part of my decades-long research in the cultural dimensions of human-environment interactions.

UC Press: What are some of the dangers of imposing research on marginalized communities, rather than engaging and empowering them in the research process?

Heather O’Leary: When researchers impose their projects on marginalized communities not only do they risk reproducing the inaccuracies of past research, but they also perpetuate a long history of extractivist epistemic violence. That is to say, many research traditions treat marginalized communities as case studies and the people within them as objects of study. This harmfully reduces populations of human beings into repositories of data ready to be analyzed by clever folks trained in scientific research traditions. But this privileges only certain ways of knowing, or epistemologies. In other words, this is a system that downplays the critical diversity of the ways in which we can understand problems and solutions.

By dehumanizing experts in other knowledge traditions and other knowledge areas (for example, experts in navigating slum life), it makes it seem more ok to treat other humans not as peers but as objects of study. This has perpetuated stratified systems of who is considered an expert and what knowledge traditions are considered legitimate. Yet, research in situ, with boots-on-the-ground, does not typically require the objective distance and non-disruption of blind experiments conducted in a lab. In fact, subjectivity is a strength of field research that only grows when researchers openly acknowledge their situatedness—or how their identities have affected their research. Instead of ignoring privilege and vast histories of hierarchy perpetuated by the supposedly objective gaze, when working in the field researchers should actively engage and empower partners in marginalized communities. Through collaboration and seeing the world through the eyes of other capable experts, empowering marginalized populations by treating them as citizen-scientists can be a powerful engine to generating new insight and better research, not to mention taking a step toward more ethical science.

UC Press: Research projects leveraging data from citizen-scientists have become increasingly common in recent decades, but oftentimes, underprivileged communities are under-represented in these projects. What are some of the benefits of better democratizing citizen science?

Heather O’Leary: Researchers take a step in the right direction when they try to broaden the representation of their samples to include traditionally underrepresented populations. Not only does this help close the critical gaps in sampling representation, but it also recognizes these populations as stakeholders who participate in systems—from being affected by dangers, to coping through creative solutions.

However, I join a critical community of scholars who argue that many inclusion tactics treat people in underprivileged communities as objects, rather than subjects. Essentially, this means that researchers observe and collect data on populations without forming essential partnerships that recognize the agency and talents of everyday people. By approaching members of underrepresented populations as legitimate, credible experts who collect untapped data and form complex theories governing their everyday experiences, researchers glean a whole lot more than diverse participation in data collection.

Democratizing citizen-science means including everyday people as partners in every step along the way: framing research projects, troubleshooting methods, interpreting resulting data, and determining next steps towards broader impact. By democratizing citizen-science, researchers issue a powerful invitation to participate in creating more nuanced hypotheses, higher-quality data collection, and holistic systemic solutions. My article demonstrates one of many instances where training and partnering with people in the local community generated even better research frameworks and how these partnerships mobilized a community of citizen-scientists to improve WaSH according to their specific, local needs.

This could mark an exciting new juncture in how we approach the “wicked problem” of urban WaSH and human-environmental interactions more broadly. Consider that as a global community we’ve made laudable, marked progress towards eradicating and reducing waterborne and vector disease. We have also worked toward reducing the barriers to clean, adequate levels of water at multi-scalar levels: from transnational rivers and aquifers, to balanced uses shared in regions, to democratizing access in communities and homes. Yet, change may not be rapid enough. This may be because we’re working with models and solutions that either do not address the vast collective human knowledge on water management and, alarmingly, we systematically repress the expertise of the most hydraulically and socially marginalized. What new models of water management could be possible if we learned to work together, as partnered equals? Which existing knowledge tradition could unlock a sustainable water future for all? Rather than looking for solutions solely in the future of science, what if we also listened to the citizen experts among us just a little more closely?


Dr. O’Leary’s article is part of a forthcoming Case Studies in the Environment “special issue” on water science and collaborative governance for addressing water quality. For more on this special issue, see our call for papers here (submissions close May 1, 2018).

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case-study articles, case-study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case-study slides. The journal informs faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.