NSF awards $500K for the Household Water Insecurity Experiences Research Coordination Network (HWISE-RCN)

The National Science Foundation, Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, recently awarded $500,000 to support the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Research Coordination Network to operate at the strategic intersection of social science discovery, policy, and practice to address the complex dynamics of household water insecurity across the globe.  The RCN’s mission is to build a community of practice and collaboration that fosters key analytics and theoretical advances coupled with the development of research protocols and standardized assessments to document, benchmark, and understand the causes and outcomes of water insecurity at the household scale.  Our work advances the goal of sustainable and socially equitable water policy and interventions through the robust evaluation of key water security problems. We pay explicit attention to causes and outcomes of household water insecurity and translation of research outcomes into meaningful and useful products for practitioners, communities, and decision-makers.

Lead by Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M), Justin Stoler (University of Miami), Amber Wutich (Arizona State University), and Sera Young (Northwestern University), the RCN developed from an existing interdisciplinary collaboration among the key personnel on the HWISE Scale (link) and broadened collaborative publication and research relationships, that includes Leila Harris (UBC, EDGES), Jessica Budds (University of East Anglia), and Chad Staddon (UWE Bristol), among many others.  Current HWISE collaborators, which have grown organically around ad-hoc workshops (funded by our respective institutions and institutes) and sponsored projects to develop a household water insecurity scale, now include over 40 scholars from 25 U.S. and international institutions across the career spectrum (post-doctoral researchers and early career scholars to middle and advanced researchers) and social science disciplines.  In short, our effort to date is only the beginning of a productive research collaborative network to advance conceptual and methodological frontiers in water security and environmental social science, more broadly.

The National Science Foundation support will expand our ad-hoc HWISE community of scholars into the HWISE Network in order to significantly advance discovery and research infrastructure in geography and environmental social sciences as related to water. Objectives that we will advance in this five-year funding cycle include, but are not limited to, three major objectives:

  1. Integrate geospatial methodologies into existing HWISE research.
  2. Evaluate how HWISE methods and concepts can be translated to household water insecurity experiences in high- and middle-income regions (e.g. North America, Europe).
  3. Establish and cultivate key pathways to translate HWISE discoveries to NSF research priority efforts.

The scope of the HWISE Network proposed activities is global and cross cultural, as we recognize the important advances in water sustainability and policy development that originate in diverse environmental contexts and regions. Consequently, the HWISE Network will draw from scholars, policy makers, and practitioners globally. 

Steering Committee Members include: Ellis Adjei Adams (Georgia State University), Alexandra Brewis (Arizona State University), Jessica Budds (University of East Anglia), Vanessa Empinotti (Universidade Federal do ABC, Brazil), Ed Frongillo (University of South Carolina), Halla Ghattas (American University of Beirut), Leila Harris (University of British Columbia), Michelle Kooy (IHE Delft Water Education), Katie Meehan (University of Oregon), Roseanne Schuster (Arizona State University), Chad Staddon (UWE Bristol), Farhana Sultana (Syracuse University), Michael Tiboris (Chicago Council on Global Affairs), and Cassandra Workman (Workman Consultants, Tanzania).

Our new program coordinator is Amy Uyen Truong (Texas A&M University). For more information, please contact hwise.rcn@gmail.com.

More information to come on our workshops, training, and collaborative opportunities! We hope to have a web platform up soon!

In the meantime, you can find the HWISE Scale research (PI Sera Young) at the following site: https://sites.northwestern.edu/hwise/



New project on urban water security and sustainability funded, $1.5M from TAMU

water reuse symbolTexas A&M University announced last week that it will fund a new interdisciplinary project on urban water security — “Pathways to Sustainable Urban Water Security: Desalination and Water Reuse in the 21st Century” — for $1.5M over the next three years.

Desalination of seawater and brackish groundwater and wastewater reuse are seen as major technological interventions that can address the increased pressure on water resources in the context of growing global demand for freshwater for domestic and productive uses. While offering new sources of water, critics highlight several impediments to their sustainable implementation and negative impacts across regions and environments. Our three-year project examines the global desalination and water reuse corporate and finance sector, analyzes the legal framework for unconventional water production across case study sites, and examines the complex water governance regimes that promote and challenge the transformation of this sector in water-stressed urban regions in Texas, California, Australia, and Israel.

I am leading the project with a team of Co-PIs that includes Dr. Christian Brannstrom (Geosciences), Professor Gabriel Eckstein (Law School), Dr. Robert Greer (Bush School), Dr. Mark Holtzapple (Engineering), Dr. Kent Portney (Bush School), Dr. John Tracy (TWRI), and Dr. Sierra Woodruff (Urban Planning). Our team will examine several aspects of desalination and wastewater reuse sector and socio-technical systems through a mixed methods approach designed to operate in an integrated and comparative interdisciplinary case study framework. We will develop a sectoral database as well as conduct surveys, documentary analysis, and semi-structured interviews to support systematic comparative case studies, social network analysis, and Q-Methodology, guided by four objectives tied to several research activities.

We will be hiring post-doctoral scholars and graduate students as we launch this interdisciplinary project in hopes to build a community of practice at Texas A&M around these grand challenges for the the 21st Century.

Eight interdisciplinary research projects will share $7 million in funding during the first round of Texas A&M University’s X-Grants program, an initiative of the 10-year, $100 million President’s Excellence Fund, the university announced today.

The funded projects represent 81 faculty members and other researchers from eight colleges—Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture, Education and Human Development, Engineering, Geosciences, Liberal Arts, Medicine and Science—as well as the Mays Business School, the School of Law, the School of Public Health and the Bush School of Government and Public Service. In addition, two state agencies of The Texas A&M University System are represented: the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

The X-Grants program was launched in February 2018 with an open invitation to the Texas A&M faculty, staff and students to submit ideas, such as research problem statements, questions or topics. The invitation generated 1,682 ideas, resulting in 145 overarching research themes, which inspired 276 one-page proposals for X-Grants funding from A&M researchers.

For more details of the funded projects, visit the X-Grant program’s website: https://president.tamu.edu/xgrants/index.html.


Social conflict over wind power in Brazil

I am happy to post this mini-documentary on the social conflicts and land grabbing as a result of the wind-power boom in Ceara, Brazil.  Low-carbon projects are not inherently socially just. Innovation requires not only technological change but attention to the social and economic structures – and how they are either changed, reinforced and for whom.  Loss of water access, land access, and thus livelihoods on Ceara’s coastal region. Green does not translate to good. Check out the Instagram account for the LaboCart Research group at UFC responsible for this project – click here.

Also, check out this short review of the process behind this documentary – click here


Emerging water conflict in Fortaleza, Brazil


“Do not take our water.” A simple message.  Don’t take our water. Over the past ten months, communities in the peripheral northwest region of Fortaleza, Brazil have begun to organize against the state’s “water security plan” to manage the five-year drought for the metropolitan region of 3.5 million people. The plan, which attends to the broader needs of water supply, reworks how the overall regional system utilizes surface water.  While superficial strategies addressed conservation, the larger strategy targeted structural and infrastructural change — drilling horizontal, industrial groundwater wells and installing major water transfers– to move water to the special economic zone and steel industrial complex on the coast.  The change would then, theoretically, reduce the industrial complex’s dependency on the region’s scarce surface water resources.  Communities adjacent to the industrial complex  protest the water transfers and deep wells, fearing that this will reduce their traditional access, for some, and for others living and depending on the shallow groundwater, reduce their individual water security.  Indeed, it seems that one’s water security is another’s water insecurity, and the resulting social protest and continued backlash will continue.  We will keep posting about this emerging water conflict as the months go by.


Lagamar protest encampment on aquaduct infrastructure slated to transfer water from the local water source to the industrial complex  (Wendy Jepson, January 2018).

Service Learning in Costa Rica

This past year I had the privilege of working with freshman from the College of Geosciences on a year-long service-learning experience that addressed water security and water provision from a global perspective.  In fall, these freshman met once a week to discuss global water challenges and to read a Doc Henley’s book Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World.   The book inspired students to engage in informed discussions about contemporary water challenges and the role of the geosciences.

Led by Judy Nunez, my partner in this endeavor, we traveled with 15 students to the Texas A&M Soltis Center in San Isidro, Costa Rica to spend a week in April learning about water governance hands on.  I joined them, after a very long 24 hours of travel from Fortaleza. We also were joined by a staff member from Wine to Water, the NGO started by Doc Henley, to accompany and guide students through the their volunteer program and lead evening discussions.


We spent several days with the local ASADAS (Asociaciones Administradoras de. Sistemas de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Sanitarios). ASADAS are community-based water institutions responsible for domestic water provision in rural areas.  There are 1,400 ASADAS that provide about 24% of the country’s domestic water.  We followed the water, from the spring to the tap, and learned about very different models of working with water resources and the challenges of provision in rural communities in Central America. In addition, The students could not wait to give a helping hand and be of service to the ASADA.


Texas A&M students working on projects for the local ASADA.

We also strengthened our individual and institutional relationships with the local ASADA. Texas A&M is part of this watershed, indeed, the nature reserve on the center’s property contributes greatly the source water protection and water quality for the downstream communities.  As such, we also need to support the democratic institutions that support the region’s well-being.  This is one way we can play a productive and supportive role, offer freshman a high-impact learning experience, and contribute to the water security of the local community.

We want to continue building on this experience and integrating research activities as well.  Our plan next year will follow the same model, but build in new books and perhaps include other activities that address water quality concerns downstream from the local pineapple plantations.  I would like to think about a theme for each year to advance the project. Perhaps this next year’s theme could be “Citizen Science and Service,” and reach out to the NGO Freshwater Watch.

A partnership between the College of Geosciences and the Water Security Initiative underwrote a large portion of the costs to support this trip.  Student only had purchase airfare, and for some, this was subsidized by other grants or awards.  Our next challenge is to identify ways to make this sustainable over the long term.


Hiking to visit the community’ source water (April 2017).


ASADA member instructing students on the day’s work plan (April 2017).

Water Security Challenges in Costa Rica?

Water security is not the first environmental challenge that comes to mind when one mentions Costa Rica.  Perhaps tropical deforestation or biodiversity loss probably come to mind before water resources.  The nation, as a whole, is water wealthy. The available water in Costa Rica is 2.8 × 104 m3/person-year while only 1.5 × 103 m3/year is used, allowing some growth in resource use.  Yet, a closer look and a few questions to government agencies, farmers, and local people, reveal how water security challenges have slowly moved to the center of debates and discussions on environmental management for this Central American country. That is, water security is more than simply water access.

There are several key challenges that commonly arise in my recent conversations:

  • Rise of hydroelectricity to achieve national carbon goals
  • Water-Food-Ecological Services conflicts in the Tempisque Watershed
  • Agro-industrial pollution of waterways
  • Water security for local communities in tourist areas of Guanacaste (Pacific Coast)
  • Transboundary conflict (Rio San Juan) and cooperation (Sixoala)
  • Overuse and agrochemical contamination of aquifers

And what looms over all of these is unknown impacts related to what Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien have called the “double exposure”:  the interactions between global environmental change and economic globalization.  In Costa Rica’s case, it is climate variability, increase demand for export crops, and the rise of Chinese FDI and investment in several key sectors, that further exacerbate the water challenges.

So, for the next few years, it looks like there will be plenty of opportunities for students to study water security and governance issues as part of a study abroad in Costa Rica.  I hope to have this ready for Summer 2018. 

img_1357View from TAMU Soltis Center, Costa Rica, “homebase” for study abroad, research activities and outreach.

img_1356Student groups make their mark on the walls, pillars, and soon, the ceilings of the dining hall at the Soltis Center.


Feel free to call me Dr.

Thank you, Dr. Biolock. A clear reminder that titles do matter.

Tenure, She Wrote

It happens so frequently, to me, to my friends and colleagues, and in professional settings no less. In asking about your work, they say, “Mrs. Biolock, can you explain your findings?” You find yourself wondering if it is necessary to correct them, to ask them to refer to you by your professional title: “Dr.” When deciding whether to halt the conversation, to introduce that awkward moment of correction, we are actually considering whether (as my mother would say) we are willing to ruin the party. Is your name, your title worthy of the tricky pause, the halted speech, and the stilted correction?

Whether someone refers to you as “Dr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”, and whether or not you correct them is in some small part about the politics of respectability. Not the typical respectability politics (à la Don Lemon ) that continues to haunt the Black community, but the…

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Water insecurity exacerbated as drought continues

Urban water insecurity increases as poor governance and water scarcity collide in small cities in the interior of Northeast Brazil.

See video.Waiting for water


Water Security Sessions in CLAG New Orleans

Leaving for New Orleans to attend the Conference of Latin American Geographers Conference early tomorrow morning.  I appreciate smaller conferences and hopes of less performance and more engagement.   The organizers have kept the conference to only three concurrent sessions, but I probably will miss some talks regardless of the careful planning.  Here are the two sessions on water and water security.  Very exciting group of scholars!

Thursday, 5 January — 1:00-2:40, Water Security in Latin America I (Ballroom)

  • Organizer: Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University) Chair: Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University)
  • J. Alejandro Artiga-Purcell (University of California, Santa Cruz). Under-Mining El Salvador’s Water Security: The co-production of gold mining and waterscape in El Salvador.
  • Emilie Schur (University of Arizona). Technofixes and Water Security in Vulnerable Mexican Border Communities: Assessing Puerto Palomas.
  • David Robles (Florida International University) and Elizabeth Anderson (Florida International University). Pastoralist Participation and Water Security in the Era of Water Scarcity: Comparing the Wayuu of northern Colombia and the Kuria of northern Tanzania.
  • Ashley Coles (Texas Christian University). Information and infrastructure: Overcoming the Challenges of Community-managed Water and Sanitation in Cali, Colombia.
  • Edson Vicente da Silva (Universidade Federal do Ceará), Francisco Otávio Landim Neto (Universidade Federal do Ceará), Juliana Felipe Farias (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte), José Manuel Mateo Rodriguez (Universidad de Havana), Adryane Gorayeb (Universidade Federal do Ceará). Geoecologia de los Paisajes y la Planificacón de Cuencas Hidrográficas en Ceará, Brasil

Thursday, 5 January — 3:00-4:40, Water Security in Latin America II (Ballroom)

  • Benjamin P. Warner (University of Massachusetts). Smallholder adaptation to drought in Costa Rica’s crony capitalist rice economy.
  • G. Thomas LaVanchy (University of Denver) and Sarah T. Romano (University of Northern Colorado). Challenges to water security along the “Emerald Coast”: A political ecology of local water governance in Nicaragua.
  • Paula Tomaz (Federal University of Ceara) and Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University). Urban water insecurity in droughtaffected cities of Northeast Brazil.
  • Lindsay Sansom (Texas A&M University) and Kent Portney (Texas A&M University). U.S.-Mexico Water Cooperation and Conflict.

Water insecurity during drought

Calamitous drought in the Brazilian Sertão (Backlands) inspired songs, poetry, and oral traditions that infuse culture and society.  Migrants leaving the desiccated soil populate the regions cities, driving metropolitan populations since the 1970s.  Reading the stories is one thing.  Visiting the region, which faces a five-year drought, is an entirely different experience. Dried reservoirs are scattered across the landscape, with many others on the brink of collapse. acudes

Small and medium-sized cities struggle to find secure sources of water.  Currently organic pollution degrades water drawn from existing sources, which further reduces residents’ confidence in domestic water provision.  Drilling groundwater has exploded during the past two years, as a strategy to mitigate the lack of surface water.  Some cities have provided its urban population with well water, with some as desalinated, depending on local resources.

The micro-politics of water provision confirms the complex strategies between political leaders, technicians, and local communities.  Geologic, social different, and political variables determine location and technological investments in these small and medium-sized cities.

Public taps offer one mechanism for residents to access domestic water. Yet two-hour lines, however self-regulated by water users, do not preclude the informal privatization through water resale. Nor does public provision provide water users with adequate and safe containers to transport water to homes. Reused lubricant and agro-toxics containers, paint buckets, and old two-litre soda bottles are more common than the more expensive 20-litre water bottle.

Questions remain as to the quality and capacity of transportation, gender divisions, and impacts of this provisioning system on public health. But without a doubt, there is a daily, grinding struggle for water in towns and cities in Brazil’s Northeast.

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