PhD Research Student

Project: Reconciling scientific and non-scientific safe water realities: case studies from the global North and global South

Funding acknowledgements: This PhD is funded as part of a 1+3 studentship by the Scottish Graduate School for Social Science



Twitter: @handerson107

Project overview

Water insecurity tends to be regarded as a challenge faced by countries in the global South, and countries in the global North are generally assumed to have universal access to safe water. There are also differences in how safe water is perceived, conceptualized and deemed acceptable across the world. Target 6.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) states that by 2030, safe and affordable water should be universal. However, aside from the dubious definitions of safe and universal water (and the lack of an affordability metric), access to safe water does not necessarily translate to the use of safe water. There may be a range of practical and cultural reasons for using an alternative source, even if it does not meet scientific quality standards. Whilst it has been proposed that these decisions indicate low levels of education, through this PhD it will be argued that these alternative ways of knowing and living, represent distinct epistemological and ontological positions, which are not solely enacted in the global South.

Underpinning this research is the recognition that whilst much store is set by scientific knowledge and its ideological foundation of rationality, societies, communities and people across the world make decisions on the basis of their experiences, values and priorities, regardless of rationality. Thus, whilst science and technology will lead to improved water quality and access, as it is measured scientifically, epistemological and ontological discrepancies between this dominant knowledge, and the people it purports to serve, may lead to perceived injustices and the use of alternative water sources to those deemed scientifically safe.

The high level objectives of this research are outlined below:

  1. To explore the lived realities and associated community-ontologies of safe drinking water for rural water users
  2. To investigate the scientific ontology of safe drinking water in rural communities and consequences for compliance with SDG 6.1
  3. To produce spatially refined scenarios of water access and quality, bringing together key stakeholders and participants from objective 1 to integrate both scientific and non-scientific realities of safe water and to understand how to achieve improved universality of water access and a more cohesive acknowledgement of what that means.

It is proposed that this research is undertaken in Scotland in the first instance, and travel restrictions allowing, in Tanzania later in the PhD, to explore different safe water realities in the global North and the global South.

My Background

This PhD follows a research masters in Human Geography, also funded as part of this studentship. Through the research masters, I undertook research on water poverty in Scotland, challenging the common narrative that water access is guaranteed in Scotland. Drawing on social justice theory and the concepts of distributive and recognitional justice, I demonstrated that the burden to derive benefits from our right to safe water is not equal in Scotland and that water poverty is experienced both in terms of access and affordability. The inadequacy of the current water poverty definition caused me to question how water quality and access are interpreted and negotiated at a local level, and the ramifications of these local level interactions for the realization of national or international targets, laying the foundations for the PhD research.

Previously, I worked at Scottish Water for seven years following an undergraduate degree in Biological sciences at the University of Edinburgh. I worked for five years in the metals lab, testing potable and waste water using mass spectrometry and optical emission spectrometry, initially as an intern, then scientist and latterly as senior scientist. I completed a masters part-time at Heriot-Watt university in Water and Environmental Management. Subsequently, I joined the Water Resources Team at Scottish Water, where I was responsible for leading the water efficiency strategy for Scotland and for compiling the Memorandum of Understanding with SEPA for enabling sustainable economic growth in Scotland.