“Geography is the study of relations between society and the natural environment. Geography looks at how society shapes, alters and increasingly transforms the natural environment, creating humanised forms from stretches of pristine nature, and then sedimenting layers of socialisation […] until a complex natural-social landscape results. Geography also looks at how nature conditions society, in some original sense of creating the people and raw materials which social forces ‘work-up’ into culture, and in an ongoing sense of placing limits and offering material potentials for social processes […] The ‘relation’ between society and nature is thus an entire system, a complex of interrelations […] Thus, the synthetic core of geography is a study of nature-society relations.” (Richard Peet, 1998)
I am a postgraduate student at the University of the West of England (UWE), recently a BSc Geography and Environmental Management graduate from the same institution. Previously in construction procurement for ten years, my decision to follow my true passion for Geography has led me to some fascinating places. Having secured a Geographical Fieldwork Grant from the Royal Geographical Society, in 2011 I led a 6-week field research expedition to Iceland investigating the impacts of hydropower development on the physical environment and its inhabitants. Subsequently I was offered a PhD studentship by the Sustainable Water Action project (SWaN) which is funded by the EC’s INCO-Lab programme under FP7 and connects existing water research institutes located across Europe and North America.
Participation in environmental decision-making is increasingly regarded as a ‘human right’. Given the fundamental importance of water to human existence, the apparent urgency of burgeoning environmental ‘crises’, and growing public distrust of policy decisions based on institutional science (Irwin 1995), it is unsurprising that the debate over how best to democratise water management has become a significant one.
Contemporary spaces of water governance are characterised by the combination of multiple entities and processes in a complex system of power relations which together produce meaning and action (Murdoch 2006). Within these spaces, despite the putative virtue of the prevailing liberal model of participatory ‘deliberative’ democracy, there are tensions between its scientific, ethical, democratic and economic underpinnings. Such contradictions and complexities are of importance because they have the capacity to prevent a satisfactory political resolution to water problems using a prescribed methodology.
This has led to the emergence of an array of alternative perspectives on how to properly politicise the management of the environment: from, at one side of the spectrum, the post-political conviction in the fundamentally contradictory nature of liberal democracy (Swyngedouw 2011); to, at the other, the liberal elimination of antagonism and conflict in favour of consensus-building in formal arrangements (Mouffe 2005).
By investigating how hydro-social democratic spaces in Arizona – a region of acute water stress combined with rapid development – are opened up or closed down to contestation between multiple relationships, my PhD project is aimed at finding a clearer, truer prescription for democratic decision-making which might materialise through acceptance of the ambivalent, partial character of human relations.
Following a visit to Arizona early in the project, it became apparent that the region acutely embodies the mid-latitudinal problem of rapid growth accompanying climate change and water scarcity. Serious water constraints and vulnerability to extreme drought under many climate models is coinciding with an anticipated influx of 4 million new residents in the coming quarter-century. As a geographical unit of investigation, the region’s water managers have instituted a range of participatory processes and methodologies in numerous contexts – from stakeholder engagement in the Tucson Valley and Salt River Project, to the valuation of ecosystems as services in the Upper San-Pedro River valley. For these reasons, along with the institutional links provided by the SWaN project, Arizona offers considerable scope for a study of this kind.