Global Ethnohydrology Study

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.” It will focus on showing how factors, such as increasing urbanization, water scarcity and climate change, are related to changes in cultural ideas and knowledge.

  Project Details

The Global Ethnohydrology Study uses cutting-edge systematic ethnographic methods drawn from anthropology. These 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, so that we can better discern both the particularities and generalities about how we all see and respond to water issues, local and global. One additional outcome of the project has been innovation in how cultural data more generally 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 being conducted in five ecologically, culturally and politically distinct world regions: tropical South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. We do most of our data collection each summer at multiple, purposively selected sites across 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, becoming trained in how to do research.

Each year, we focus in on a different specific issue, made possible through collaborating with experts from many fields along with our network of site leads:

Experiencing Thirst

Collaborating with Stavros Kavouras, Director of the Hydration Science Lab at ASU, we are planning to use cross-cultural comparison to map the ways people recognize and interpret the physical-emotional symptoms and sensations of thirst. Data collection is planned for summer 2023. 

Moral Economies of Water

Many policy prescriptions to address water insecurity are based on economic principles of human rationality, but struggle  to deliver results. A focus on the moral economics of water is one way to better understand success of interventions. Led by economic anthropologist Melissa Beresford (SJSU) we are using cross-site comparison to identify the distinctive features of moral economies for water, such as people’s cultural expectations of who should be responsible for providing water during times of scarcity. We ask: how do human cultural understandings of justice and fairness govern water exchanges under conditions of water insecurity? Data collection is taking place at multiple global sites in 2022. 

Sanitation Dignity and Distress
In many low-water settings, women most especially struggle to meet their basic sanitary needs. This is an often humiliating, deeply-distressing phenomena called “period poverty.” Working with biological anthropologist Kate Clancy (University of Illinois), linguistic anthropologist Cindi SturtzSreetharan, and medical anthropologist Sarah Trainer, the GES is looking at the ways women express their sanitary concerns to others (such as husbands or friends), and how others understand and react to the different ways they communicate distress. We ask: what factors help women claim dignity in managing the profound challenges of sanitation insecurity? Data were collected in summer 2021, and collaborating site leads include Md. Jobayer Hussain (Bangladesh), Neetu Choudhary (India), and Urooba Fatima (Pakistan).  

COVID, Handwashing and Water Insecurity
In 2020-21, working with water-health experts Justin Stoler (University of Miami) and Asher Rosinger (Penn State University) and the Household Water Insecurity Experience research coordination network (HWISE-RCN), we focused all our efforts on advancing novel analyses of existing GES data to support planning around management of COVID risk in low-water communities globally (especially from our multi-country 2015 study on hygiene norms and 2017 study on measuring water insecurity). This included producing new research findings, reviews, and policy statements on how COVID and water insecurity intersected with handwashing and other health-relevant behaviors.

Plumbing Poverty, Social Disparities and Water Insecurity
Many households globally do not have sufficient plumbing infrastructure to get safe, sufficient water into the home, undermining health and wellbeing. Through the PLUS Alliance, the GES partnered with the Plumbing Poverty Project, an effort to address questions of how social and geographic factors shape people’s risk of water insecurity through the mechanism of incomplete household plumbing. The Plumbing Poverty Project is led by Katie Meehan, Department of Geography, Kings College London. Data were collected at four comparison sites within the Phoenix metropolitan area, and results have been published

Water Sharing in the Wake of Disaster
How do people work together to deal with serious water shocks in the wake of hurricanes or other dreadful natural disasters? Do prior experiences of living with water shortage versus plenty impact people’s strategies for water sharing when catastrophe strikes? Collaborators include Carlos Garcia-Quijano and Hilda Lloréns (University of Rhode Island) and Anaís Roque. Data were collected in mid 2018 at three community sites in Puerto Rico, and results have been published

Measuring Household Water Insecurity
What does household water insecurity look like in four low-resource countries? Can a scale be validated to measure this in a range of contexts? How can researchers support adaptation and implementation of a household water insecurity scale in low-resource settings? Collaborators include Sera Young, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University; Wendy Jepson, Department of Geography, Texas A&M University; Roseanne Schuster, Arizona State University.
Data were collected in 2017, and publication is complete – but this project lives on as the Household Water Insecurity Experiences research collaboration network (

Ecosystem Services in Rivers
How are ecosystem services equitably or inequitably distributed in riverine environments? How do local respondents describe ecosystem services and disservices, and what are their understandings of equitable or inequitable distribution of these services? Collaborators included CAP-LTER, an NSF-funded research collaborative at ASU. Data collection was conducted in 2016 and publication is now complete.

Water, Hygienic Norms + Hygiene Stigma
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? Collaborators included Matthew Gervais, Simon Fraser University. Data collection was conducted in 2015. Publication is now complete and includes a book with Johns Hopkins University Press.

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?
Collaborators include Meg du Bray, Idaho State University Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology.

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 Jacelyn Rice, Duke University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Rhian Stotts, Arizona State University

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.

The Science of Water Art: A Citizen Science Project
How do Arizona schoolchildren understand water use in their communities today, and how do they envision water will be used in their communities 100 years from now? What role does gender play in children’s portrayal of community water use?
Collaborators include Holly Vins (Karna, LLC) and Alissa Ruth (ASU).

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.

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.

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.

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.

Partners: Penn State University | University of Rhode Island | University of Puerto Rico | Northwestern University | Texas A&M University | Simon Fraser University | Idaho State University | Duke University | University of Florida | Stockholm University

  Research Team


This project was initially funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. SES-0345945 Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC), NSF grant number DEB-0423704 Central Arizona–Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research