Bruce Lankford

Systems & people-centred water and irrigation

On being a waterist (or watereer)

While there is little new in the ideas of empowerment, participation and local user knowledge, I argue that water and irrigation ‘experts’ continue to see themselves as holding disciplinary expertise and training.  This in turn means resource users can more easily be categorised as recipients of irrigation technologies.  In other words we, as experts, fail to fully comprehend how it is to see the world as transdisciplinary or a-disciplinary set of problems. A more phenomenological viewpoint of resource systems would demand of experts a revisiting of the basic tenets of how to intervene in the improving of those resource systems. This is particularly the case when we, as experts, address challenging ideas and concepts such as productivity and efficiency.  And the latter is the case because to ‘raise’ efficiency is both (we frequently read) a contentious debate requiring scientific resolution, and a technological effort requiring (we frequently read) capital and infrastructure such as land-levelling, canal lining and drip/sprinkler distribution systems.   No wonder the irrigator has little agency in this high-stakes drama.

This text below is taken from the 2012 paracommons book on this topic:

“My whimsical solution to socialising efficiency is to become a waterist or watereer; the designation of a community scientist exploring the democratisation of expertise (Woodhouse and Nieusma, 2001) (see Box 5).

Box 5 On being a ‘waterist’

Through education and employment, we fall into categories: social scientist, economist, hydrologist, crop biologist, engineer and agronomist. Such specialists tend to see the world in a particular way. Claiming to be interdisciplinary and good at running participatory workshops, when asked for solutions to address low-yielding resources, people with well-developed career specialisms usually fall back on their training and ‘office’. For example, ‘price water’ says the economist; ‘breed higher yielding crops’ says the biologist; ‘line irrigation canals’ intones the engineer; ‘introduce new water laws’ proposes the lawyer; ‘form user groups’ argues the social scientist, and ‘partner with drip irrigation companies’ suggests the policymaker interested in public-private partnerships.

But what would you do if you were a ‘waterist’? A waterist is someone whose discipline and position does not come to the fore when asked for a solution. He or she sees the solution by looking at the resource via the eyes of a certain kind of resource user. A waterist seeks out certain kinds of irrigators in an irrigation system who: a) rarely have any disciplinary training, and b) are farming on boundaries and margins of resource availability. An example might be a farmer at the tail end of an irrigation system or cropping a particularly shallow and infertile soil. A waterist realises these types of farmers are least likely to represent themselves loudly at a resource workshop where the momentum is building towards expert or bold solutions, but if engaged with might contribute their experience on managing a resource prudently and carefully. A waterist might also see they have already instigated, with neighbouring farmers, various agreements to deal with scarcity – for example, rotating flows; cleaning canals; not planting after a given date; adding in extra canals where necessary, choosing local shorter-season varieties; and undertaking dry field preparation. A waterist sees these ‘at-the-margin’ irrigators as waterists, and becomes their champion.”

This citation is: Lankford B.A.  2013. Resource Efficiency Complexity and the Commons: The Paracommons and Paradoxes of Natural Resource Losses, Wastes and Wastages. Earthscan Publications, Abingdon. Page 190.