Tackling water issues with a social science focus
Author: Cristina Rojas, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: May 6, 2019

We drink it, bathe in it, irrigate crops with it, and more. Water is essential to all life, but is increasingly being threatened by pollution, climate change and the demands of a growing population. 

 The quantity, quality and distribution of water will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century — but it's not an issue that can be solved by engineers and technical experts alone. Social scientists have an important role in ensuring that social, economic, political and legal barriers are considered when policies and solutions are designed and implemented.

"There's a huge need in the environmental science realm to have social scientists embedded who can understand the environmental science, but who also understand human behavior and are attentive to people and people's behaviors, characteristics and demographics," said Melissa Haeffner, an assistant professor of environmental science and management.

Haeffner is one of several social scientists at Portland State, all faculty fellows of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, whose research focuses on water issues both locally and globally.

Oregon's Water Woes

Haeffner and students in her Freshman Inquiry class Human/Nature launched Oregon Water Stories, a project that gathers stories about water as a way to better understand people's relationship with water and take a dive into some of the water issues facing the state. The project has grown to include geography and applied linguistics students and community partners.

"We want to look at all the multiple voices, what's going on, what people are talking about, what are their issues based on where they live," Haeffner said. "In the future, Oregon is really going to have to start adjusting water because of the changes in climate, population, economy and affordability. … You have to know where people are coming from, what their values are, and where the common ground is to ensure we're managing our natural resources equitably."

It's inevitable that customers across the state will soon have to pay more to keep their taps flowing, Haeffner said. There's a need to upgrade aging infrastructure and rethink how to manage water resources as warmer temperatures cause snow-dominant areas to be replaced with rain-dominant ones. These changes will bring up new water issues. 

"We have to raise rates, but people already are having trouble affording their water bills," she said. "So now you run into access issues and environmental justice issues where some people might not be able to have access to clean water because they can't pay for it."

She said it's important that any conversation around water involves diverse people from across the state.

"When you start looking at water, you start seeing how it's connected between the economy, politics and societies," Haeffner said. "When you turn on the tap or get a drink from the water fountain, you're connected to everybody in the state."

Water and Inequalities

Alida Cantor, an assistant professor of geography, explores water in the context of power dynamics.

"The more technical water science certainly has an important role to play in understanding how much water we have, where it is, and where it comes from, but those questions of who gets to decide who gets access to what water, and of what quality, are really social questions and looking at those power dimensions is really important," she said.
 She says water issues are often reflective of broader inequalities in society.

"The same communities that we see being marginalized around water are communities who are marginalized in many other ways in society," she said, from Latino communities in California who saw their wells dry up and found themselves without running water during the drought, to Flint, Michigan, where the water crisis disproportionately affected black communities. "Water is one way of getting at broader issues around power relations in society."

She's working on a research project in Maui, Hawaii, where a battle over water rights has pitted Native Hawaiian taro farmers against some of the state's largest private landowners who historically diverted water from streams for its sugar cane fields. With sugar production in decline, questions arose over whether companies could continue to divert water for development, or if the water should be permanently returned to the dry stream beds. Cantor has interviewed activists, lawyers and government officials to learn more about how the native Hawaiians successfully used the law in their favor to support their water rights.

She said researchers not only help shed light on the inequalities at play, but also inform policymakers, who can bring about action.

"I think there's an important role for researchers to not only think about how policy gets made, but also how it gets implemented to actually do what it says it's going to do," Cantor said.

Water and Disaster

Jola Ajibade, an assistant professor of geography, has been studying how governments in the coastal cities of Lagos, Nigeria, and Manila, Philippines, are responding to rising sea levels and heavy flooding as climate change impacts become increasingly visible. 

 In Lagos, she says poor people are often targeted and forcibly evicted from waterfront areas, while wealthy areas are protected and developed. In Manila, the government has given informal settlers the choice to move to a resettlement area, but the housing is often located in distant suburbs far from jobs and services. Many residents instead prefer locations where they have access to livelihood and better living conditions in the city. These issues raise concerns about environmental justice and the "rights to city" – who is able to live where and why.

Building on this research, Ajibade is looking at the politics of resilience planning and how cities can best adapt to current and future risks in an inclusive, just and sustainable manner. She has interviewed city experts, policy makers and residents in Manila and here in Portland on this topic. 

"The role of social scientists is to bring to bear some of these problems in the system that prevents everyone from having equal access to water, especially people who are poor, but also talk about how some infrastructure enables some but marginalizes others," she said. "We try to create a system where those who have been invisible are given a voice. We make their challenges and struggles with access to water and impacts of flood more visible and try to engage policymakers in how we can collectively resolve this and create a just and equitable society."

Women in Water

Together, Haeffner, Cantor and Ajibade are collaborating on a project that will explore women's roles in the professional water management sector and the implications of gender disparities.

Little data exists on the number of women in water-related careers, but they suspect that it's a male-dominated field.

"There are state governments, water utilities, various sectors that are making decisions around water," Cantor said. "If you have one slice of society making these decisions, what does that mean? What does it matter for the decisions that get made?"

Photo captions: At top, Melissa Haeffner, right, interviews Monika Schillat, an expedition leader for tours to Antarctica, for a project she's working on. Middle, Alida Cantor and Kelly Kay from UCLA inspect water diversion infrastructure in Maui, Hawaii. Bottom, Jola Ajibade. (Courtesy photos).