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Global Ethnohydrology Study

Ethnohydrology survey collection

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. 

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. In particular, 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.

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


Water Sharing in the Wake of Disaster
How do people living in cities work together to deal with serious water shortages 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?

Planned collaborations include Carlos Garcia-Quijano, University of Rhode Island and Wendy Jepson, Texas A & M.

Data will be collected in 2018.

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, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University.

Data were collected in 2017. Data analysis is underway.

Local Cultural Knowledge + Spatial Vulnerability
How is cultural knowledge about climate risks and adaptations distributed within communities at particular risk of extreme climate events? Does it map onto local ecological vulnerabilities, such as extreme flooding? Does gender matter?

Collaborators include Chemonics International and the Mozambique Coastal Cities Climate Adaptation Project.

Data collection was conducted in late 2016. Data is currently being analyzed.

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 include CAP-LTER, an NSF-funded research collaborative at ASU.

Data collection was conducted in 2016. Data is currently being analyzed.

Palta†, M., M. du Bray*, R. Stotts*, A. Wolf**, and A. Wutich. (2016) Ecosystem services and disservices for vulnerable populations: Findings from urban waterways and wetlands in an American desert city. Human Ecology. DOI 10.1007/s10745-016-9843-8

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 include Matthew Gervais, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University

Data collection was conducted in 2015. Papers are currently under review.

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.

Wutich, A., A. Brewis, J. Rosales Chavez*, C. Jaiswal**. (2015) Water, Worry, and Doña Paloma: Why Water Security is Fundamental to Global Mental Health. In Global Mental Health: A Narrative Reader. (Eds., B. Kohrt and E. Mendenhall). Left Coast Press.

Du Bray, M., A. Wutich, K. Larson, D. White, and A. Brewis. 2017. Emotion, coping, and climate change in island nations: Implications for environmental justice. Environmental Justice, in press.

Du Bray, M., A. Wutich, R. Stotts, and A. Brewis. 2017.  Hope and Worry: Gendered emotional geographies of climate change in three vulnerable US communities. Weather, Climate, Society.  Early view at DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-16-0077.1

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, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

Rhian Stotts (2016) Cross-cultural threats to water supplies and future approaches for water management. PhD Dissertation, 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.

Larson, K., R. Stotts*, A. Wutich, D. White, A. Brewis. (2016) Cross-cultural Perceptions of Water Risks and Solutions. Society & Natural Resources. doi: 10.1080/08941920.2015. 1122132.

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

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).

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.

Hagaman*, A. and A. Wutich. (2016) How many interviews are enough to identify metathemes in multi-sited and cross-cultural research? Another perspective on Guest, Bunce, and Johnson’s (2006) landmark study. Field Methods. doi: 10.1177/1525822X16640447

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.

Main Collaborators:

Dr. Amber WutichAmber Wutich
Assistant Professor
Arizona State University
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Dr. Alexandra Brewis SladeAlexandra Brewis Slade
President's Professor
Arizona State University
School of Human Evolution and Social Change