Beyond Access: Comparative Analysis of Non-material Dimensions of Water Insecurities

Project team: L. Harris, M. Galvin, S. Walsh, W. Jepson, D. Splichalova

Project Goals:

(1) Advance conceptualization and empirical evidence for non-material elements of water insecurity

(2) Examine theoretical and empirical linkages between household water (in)security and citizen engagement and participation across case study sites (e.g. South Africa, Brazil, Canada).

(3) Develop and extend narrative, visual, and comparative methods for water insecurity studies

The human right to water (HRW), Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and recent the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) have all highlighted critical issues regarding water access and security, particularly for the world’s poor. It is well established that water insecurity impinges on a range of important considerations, from public health, to educational achievement, social status and gender equity. Studies and interventions related to Household Water Insecurity (HWI) rely heavily on material metrics and proxies (e.g., distance to infrastructure, coverage area). Few studies attend to non-material aspects of hydro-social relations, focusing on socio-political and emotional-affective dimensions (e.g. stress, worry, or senses of exclusion), that might impinge on, or result from, water insecurities. Therefore, we aim to address this gap to better capture and understand non-material aspects that might be important as ‘conversion factors’ to enable capabilities and entitlements to overcome household water insecurity, while also connecting an extended understanding of HWI to linked debates on participation and engagement.  Our research design relies on visual, narrative, participatory methods in a comparative case study framework. Building on longstanding work in South Africa, Brazil and water insecure locales in British Columbia (including for First Nations), our team is uniquely situated to carry out this innovative multi-sited, multi-method project.


First, analyzing non-material dimensions of water security comparatively and in each site (goal 1), we will develop theoretical and empirical linkages between HWI and citizen engagement (goal 2). While it is often believed that participatory engagement serves to overcome HWI, very little is known about the inverse—how and whether HWI affects community engagement. This focus will allows us to further build on a growing body of work on emotion, affect, and citizenship practice to understand whether, and how, non-material dimensions of HWI (e.g. shame, pride, or senses of belonging) affect community engagement. Finally, we seek to advance innovative methodologies in the research process, notably through visual, narrative, and community-engaged methods (goal 3). These tools will allow us to capture key elements of the human experience linked to water insecurity in each site, while also promoting knowledge co-creation through community engagement in the research process. Working in Cape Town, South Africa, Ceará, Brazil, and in water insecure communities of British Columbia, Canada, we will aim to advance understanding and responses to these issues in each locale, while also learning across the cases to respond to more regional and global responses to HWI. This analytical focus, and innovative research design, will enable key empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions to extend beyond conventional approaches to water insecurity often defined narrowly in terms of presence, absence, or affordability of safe water. Our contributions will focus on the meanings and experiences of water insecurity and how this impinges on engagement and other key features of water governance.


Student training will be a key focus, with student engagement in all facets of the research including write-up and dissemination of results. We are planning conference presentations, peer reviewed journal articles, an edited volume, visual exhibits (both in person and online), policy briefs, and webinars. We will also hold regional knowledge mobilization workshops with local partners in Year 4. The proposed work builds on the prior experience and collaborations of the researchers in each of our chosen research sites and will also leverage key networks—notably the International WaTERS Research and Training Network, and the emerging Household Water Insecurity Experiences Consortium (HWISE).

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