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March 15, 2015
Image: Hydrocitizenship

Image: Hydrocitizenship

Hydrocitizenship is a UK project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which seeks to investigate the relationships between water and humans through a number of creative, interdisciplinary approaches.  The project website outlines that: “The term ‘hydrocitizenship’ has been adopted in reference to the more established notion of “ecological citizenship” which sees transformations in how society works at individual and collective levels as essential if we are to generate more meaningful, ecologically sustainable forms of society. In our project, we put this idea to work within the contemporary contexts of individual and community engagements with water.”

Working with collaborators across the social sciences and arts and humanities, and with four specific case study regions (Borth; Bristol; Lee Valley, London; and Shipley) and a vibrant online community Hydrocitizens, it seems that Hydrocitizenship project has the potential to bring new approaches to debates over how we use, conserve and manage our freshwater environments.  Intrigued, we spoke to the project leader Owain Jones, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University.

Jones told me that, “The vision for Hydrocitizens is multi-faceted, with a bi-line that reads “connecting people to water and through water.”  This process takes place in two ways.  First, connecting people to water: this means working with communities to explore and develop awareness of all the water assets and issues in their lives – both locality and globally.  Second, connecting people through water: this means working with communities to explore, and be more aware of (and active in) how they are connected with other people – other communities – through water assets and issues.  Although the focus above is on ‘people’ – individuals and communities – we are also very much focused on connections between humans and nature through water. So when we say ‘water’ this includes, for example, aquatic based biodiversity and habitats.

The project title Hydrocitizenship is a deliberately named subset of “ecological citizenship”, a concept put forward by academic Andrew Dobson and others in the mid 2000s, which seeks to find ways that society can work to become more sustainable.  Jones frames Hydrocitizenship within this movement: “I completely buy into a number of eminent (environmental) philosophers who assert that unless forms of ecological citizenship emerge to replace, or at least offset, liberal (consumption based) citizenship we have little hope of reversing the terribly destructive era of global history we are now in.”

Similarly, Jones emphasises the potential offered by interdisciplinary approaches which draw from the arts and humanities in suggesting sustainable relationships with water (see the ‘Wading to Shipley‘ video above for example), “From my point of view the basic driving forces which shape society are ideas – and ideas woven into structures of culture, politics and so on. The arts and humanities deal in ideas. People get all stressed about the question of ‘impact’ and the idea that the STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, maths) have the upper hand in these terms against the arts and humanities (and social sciences). I don’t buy that at all. Think of the Romantic Movement. It completely changed our view of what humans and nature are. That’s impact. STEM subjects – for the most part – don’t challenge cultural and political norms – they reinforce them. We need some new version of the romantic movement – the eco-romantics maybe.”

Jones’ interests in freshwater are numerous, stemming from a childhood on a farm on the Wentlooge Levels in South Wales and alongside the Severn Estuary, and as a result describes wetlands, rivers and tides are being “in my blood.” Hydrocitizenship has also developed out of intellectual and professional concerns with water, as Jones describes, “water is a very vivid and palpable exemplar of how we are connected to and dependent on nature and the environment. The point of ecological citizenship is not to say we need to become ecological – we inevitably are as bodies interact with the environment. The point is to recognise how we are embedded in nature and the implications of that. Our vision of that has been suppressed – in a sense that’s what the Enlightenment and modernity did.  See, for example Latour’s ‘We Have Never Been Modern’.  Water is undeniably ecological in how it works – given that a key principle of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.”

Water bubbling up from below the city streets.  Image: Hydrocitizenship

Water bubbling up from below the pavement. Image: Hydrocitizenship

Have there been similar projects in the past, which approach water in an interdisciplinary, interconnected way?  Jones suggests that “There has been some interesting policy initiatives in the UK and beyond – such as ‘Making Space for Water’ – where people are trying to think about water in joined up ways rather than in issue silos. A precursor to this project was initially another Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant called ‘Before the Flood’. This was conducted with the Environment Agency who were looking for new ways to ‘engage’ with communities about flooding in urban areas where rivers are often ‘hidden’.  But in the course of that project the idea emerged of talking to communities not just about flooding but about river and water more holistically. So the project title changed to Multi-Story Water (links to the project in Eastville and Shipley). Myself and others on the team have also previously worked on projects about tides, and floods, community and memory.”

The idea that human communities are a fundamental and interconnected part of ecosystems with the power to make environmentally sustainable decisions about how they use water was embedded in the Hydrocitizenship project from the start.  Jones explains how the project was catalysed at a meeting organised by the AHRC, “Professor Peter Coates from Bristol University – who, amongst other subjects, researches the history of rivers – came up the term Hydrocitizenship while we were talking about the ecological crisis. Most of the others in the now-Hydrocitizenship team were at that meeting and then‘gathered’ around that idea.  I once heard that children are a “good indicator species for cities”.  I think the same can be said for water: if a city is looking after its water then it will be functioning effectively in a number of ways. There is a key quote that represents that sort of idea from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership: we believe a deeper connection to local water bodies can bring a new cycle of community hope and energy that will lead to healthier urban waters, improved public health, strengthened local businesses, and new jobs, as well as expanded educational, recreational, housing, and social opportunities.”

Working with communities around water is a key element of Hydrocitizenship.  I ask Jones who and where these communities are? The answer is (perhaps unsurprisingly) very fluid: “We will consider communities in topological (network) terms and in topographical (space/place) terms.  Can conflict create communities and does such an idea help in conflict resolution?  A community is a set of interactions, conflict is an interaction. We are not working towards the idea that differing uses of and attitudes water can all be harmonised. There will be reasonable (and unreasonable) grounds for conflict within and between communities, both interest and residential.

Another key focus is what happens to ideas of community if the material (e.g. water supply and waste water systems) are included in the conception and analysis of community. And the ecological: we are very keen to break down the chronically narrow human focus in ideas of community. A city is home to non-humans as well as humans. The water in our body cycles between spaces and lives. The water in my body might at some point soon be the life space of aquatic creatures in my local river. In a sense this is what ecological citizenship is about, recognising the interdependencies which weave people and nature together. This harks back to Aldo Leopold’s celebrated proto environmental ethics essay on the ‘Land Ethic’ (1949) which ‘enlarges the boundaries of the people to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or, collectively: the land’; and this ‘changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-people to [a] member and citizen of it’ – the ‘biotic citizen’.

The Olympic Park on the River Lea in East London, one of the projects study sites.  Image: Hydrocitizenship

The Olympic Park on the River Lea in East London, one of the projects study sites. Image: Hydrocitizenship

How might some of the more creative and experimental approaches to understanding our relationships with water fostered by Hydrocitizenship take shape?  This seems to be an ongoing work-in-progress for the project: “Basically there are four stages of interdisciplinary research and practice. Stage one is a pretty standard literature review where ‘what is going on’ in a number of areas of research is explored and summarised – looking at what other people are doing and, to some extent, identifying ‘best practice’ elsewhere.  Stage two seeks to gather information on the local hydrosphere in the case study areas: Borth, Mid Wales; Bristol; Lea Valley London; Shipley (Bradford). This includes mapping (gathering existing data / information) the catchments, issues in the catchments, drainage and water supply etc, and speaking to local stakeholders of various kinds. This also includes finding out about, and making contact with, local groups who are active in water related issues. Each case study team has artist and a selected community group as a project partner.

Stage three involves holding in-depth conversations with individuals and communities, in conjunction with the key project partners (artists, community groups) in which potential issues and actions are discussed and developed (that is roughly where we are now).  Stage four will be a series of events which emerge from the above process. These are very much focused on community involvement and engagement. The events will vary but might well involve performance, storytelling, film making, art installations, and cultural participatory mapping – all curated by artist or social activists. These events will speak about the water-community issues which are identified and discussed in stage one to three.    We readily admit to something of a tension in the approach between top down intellectual ambitions about developing senses of ecological citizenship, and more bottom up, emergent themes which arise from local conversations. We feel that finding, making, meeting grounds between these is possible and, in fact, a key aim.”

Learning about water.  Image: Hydrocitizenship

Learning about water. Image: Hydrocitizenship

Our conversation with Owain Jones ends on a cautionary but hopeful note: “I think it is pretty obvious that current approaches to the environment embedded in politics and policy are struggling to put society onto a sustainable course. The list of ongoing environmental decline is long and alarming. The latest scare in the news is about the ‘death’ of our soils. But that concern has been around for decades with very little change in practice. We need to be changing hearts and minds about what our priorities are towards the environment. This needs to be done at multiple layers and scales of society. Of course the arts and humanities don’t have all the answers – but they are very good at asking ‘unusual’ questions and telling compelling stories.

Narratives and stories are critical ways in which individuals understand themselves and their position in the world. Politics is very much about the control of narrative. The situation we find ourselves in today is that we live in a cacophony of competing narratives, from religion, the conventional ideologies that underpin mainstream politics (in the UK), all the stuff in popular culture, and the endless stream of marketing which underpins consumer society. Getting new stories air in these circumstances is challenging, and we need to find ways of ‘cutting through the noise’ to talk about the environment.”

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