Global Ethnohydrology Study

Looking forward into this millennium, access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most important challenges facing humans in many parts of the world. Water shortages and issues of how water is used and distributed have profound effects on our health, economics, political stability and environmental sustainability. As the worldwide struggle to reconcile rapidly expanding populations with increasingly overburdened water supplies continues to expand, the need to understand how people think about and react to water is critical to developing sustainable solutions. Especially, understanding local ecological knowledge (that is, what local populations know and perceive about their surrounding resources and ecosystems, including water) will have a key role in addressing this complex challenge.

The Global Ethnohydrology Study is a transdisciplinary multi-year, multi-site program of research that examines the range of variation in local ecological knowledge of water issues, also known as “ethnohydrology.” Using cutting-edge systematic ethnographic methods drawn from anthropology that allow us to understand how and why culture (perceptions, norms and beliefs) is shaped ecologically and varies from person-to-person and place-to-place, we can better discern both the particularities and generalities about how we all see and respond to water issues, local and global. We focus on showing how factors, such as increasing urbanization, water scarcity and climate change, are related to changes in cultural ideas and knowledge. One outcome of the project has been innovation in how cultural data are collected, analyzed and interpreted in ways that allow meaningful comparison across diverse settings.

This innovative study was initiated in Phoenix, Arizona (United States), with funding from the United States National Science Foundation’s Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) and Central-Arizona Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research Project (CAP LTER) programs. With the studies focused in Phoenix as its first phase, the Global Ethnohydrology Study has subsequently focused on examining cross-cultural understandings of water institutions, or the rules and norms used to distribute water, and water scarcity, including in relation to climate change, health and sustainability throughout the globe.

Research is now being conducted in five ecologically, culturally and politically distinct world regions: tropical South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. We collect data each summer throughout the globe, with the assistance of global health and anthropology students from ASU. Undergraduate and graduate students are also collaborating in tool design and in data management and analysis in our lab.

Core Team Members:

  • Amber Wutich, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change
  • Alexandra Brewis Slade, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Each year, we trace a different coalescing domain in our comparative studies of human perceptions of water issues with diverse sets of collaborators:

Hygiene Norms + Stigma + Water Insecurity
Meeting community hygiene norms is extremely difficult when you live without enough water to bathe or wash clothes. Public health campaigns especially promote standards of cleanliness yet fail to understand this can potentially create additional stigma, suffering and social exclusion for those who are most water-short and cannot meet expectations. Viewed cross-culturally, are hygiene norms more lax or accommodating in water-poor environments? Within water-poor communities, can and do people adjust their own hygiene standards and their judgments of others to accommodate specific challenges of living with little water?

Uncertainty + Climate Change + Distress
Who is most vulnerable to the psychological and emotional effects of climate-change uncertainty? How do livelihood, connection to place and local ecology matter?

Data collection was completed in mid 2014 in 5 countries and 3 sites within the U.S. (Alaska, Arizona, Alabama).

Wastewater and Water Quality Concerns

What shapes acceptance of waste water reuse? Are there universal concerns regarding drinking recycled waste water? Is sewage mining for water always considered repulsive?

Collaborators include Paul Westerhoff, Arizona State University School of Sustainable Engineering and Built Environments.

Data collection was conducted in mid 2013.

Uncertainty + Climate Science
Are there cross-cultural differences in how people view uncertainty in climate science? If so, what criteria do people use to evaluate climate science? Which findings are perceived to be most salient, which are considered most uncertain, and why?

Collaborators include Dave White, Arizona State University School of Community Resources and Development and Kelli Larson, Arizona State University Schools of Sustainability and Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Wutich, A., A. White, D. White, K. Larson, A. Brewis and C. Roberts. 2014. Hard paths, soft paths or no paths? Cross-cultural perceptions of water solutions. Hydrology and Earth Systems Sciences, 18: 109–120.

Climate Change + Disease
How do local climate-related risks shape cultural models of climate-change-related disease? Do local cultural models of climate-change-related disease reflect those of scientists and public health experts? What are the implications for individual disease prevention behaviors and larger public health campaigns?

Collaborators include Jonathan Maupin, Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Poster: McAlister, A., A. Wutich, A. Brewis, J. Maupin and D. Hruschka. 2013. Global convergences and divergences in ethnotheories of climate change and disease. CAP LTER All Scientists Meeting Poster Session.

In 2010 we also did a related project with schoolchildren in Arizona and Guatemala. See "The Science of Water Art: A Citizen Science Project."

Vins, H., A. Wutich, A. Brewis, M. Beresford, A. Ruth and C. Roberts. 2014. Gender and children's perceived water futures in the desert Southwest. Human Organization, 73:3, in press.

Waterborne Disease
Are there universals in how people globally think about and assess the disease risks and health benefits of water?

Collaborators include Alyson Young, University of Florida Department of Anthropology.

Brewis, A., M. Gartin, A. Wutich and A. Young. 2013. Global convergence in ethnotheories of water and disease. Global Public Health, 8(1): 13–36.

Water, Institutions and Environmental Justice
Are there universals in how people conceive of fair water distribution systems? What role do institutional rules and norms play in people’s understanding of justice in water systems?

Collaborators include Abigail York, Arizona State University, School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Wutich, A., A. Brewis, A. York and R. Stotts. 2012. Rules, norms and injustice: A cross-cultural study of perceptions of justice in water institutions. Society & Natural Resources, 26: 795–809.

Wutich, A, A. Brewis, A. York, R. Stotts and C. Roberts. 2012. Shared cultural norms for justice in water institutions: Results from Fiji, Ecuador, Paraguay, New Zealand, and the U.S. Journal of Environmental Management, 113: 370-6.

Wutich, A., A. Brewis, S. Sigurdsson, R. Stotts, and A. York. 2013. Fairness and the human right to water: A preliminary cross-cultural theory. In The Social Life of Water in a Time of Crisis. (Ed., John Wagner). Berghahn Books.

Climate Change + Local Ecological Knowledge
How do local factors shape people’s perceptions of climate change? Are there cross-cultural models of climate change signs, or are such models local and idiosyncratic?

Collaborators include Beatrice Crona, Stockholm University, Stockholm Resilience Center.

Crona, B., A. Wutich, A. Brewis and M. Gartin. 2013. Perceptions of climate change: Linking local and global perceptions through a cultural knowledge approach. Climatic Change, 119(2): 519–531.

Water Quality in Phoenix
What do urban residents perceive to cause poor water quality? What remedies (institutional or individual) do they believe should be used to address poor water quality? How does living in a neighborhood with perceived high or low water quality affect cultural models of water quality?

Collaborators include Meredith Gartin, Arizona State University, Global Institute of Sustainability.

Gartin, M., B. Crona, A. Wutich, and P. Westerhoff. 2010. Urban ethnohydrology: Cultural knowledge of water quality and water management in a desert city. Ecology and Society, 15(4): 36.