Abby Lindsay, AESS Board Member (June 2014-2016), is a Global Environmental Politics doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. This summer she completed nine weeks of fieldwork in Peru. She traveled to seven cities and successfully completed 70 interviews with key stakeholders, which will contribute to her dissertation research about urban water governance.
In Peruvian cities, climate variability, high urbanization rates, and inequitable distribution challenge water provision and treatment. Across the country, different water management approaches have been adopted, resulting in varied water supply and widespread water pollution. Although canals, water transfers, and other grey infrastructure have historically been the norm in Peru, some cities have been shifting to a more integrated ecosystem-based approach to water management that endorses natural infrastructure.
Abby’s research focuses on the decision-making process that has some basins to shift to new management approaches and technologies. In particular, she hones in on the role of scientific and technical knowledge, as science-based decision-making has been widely promoted, and analyzes the processes through which scientific information is interpreted and used. Utilizing a combination of Science and Technology Studies and multi-stakeholder management of socio-ecological systems, her research aims to contribute to understanding how scientific and technical knowledge interacts with myriad other factors in urban water management decision-making.
AESS Program Coordinator, Carolyn Anthon, interviewed Abby after her return to the states to learn more about her research trip to Peru. The following is transcribed from various conversations.
How did you become interested in this area of research?
Between my Masters and PhD I worked at the State Department on environment and trade, where I got deep into the challenges of implementing environmental laws and strengthening environmental governance in Latin America. With the freedom to select a new topic for my doctoral research, I am able to focus on water governance, which I have long had an interest in and which builds on my science, policy, and planning background. Not only is it incredibly important, but it is greatly affected by climate change (both in terms of the hydrological cycle and public perception) and has very local dynamics. How the local contextual factors intersect with broader trends and knowledge is not only undertheorized, but has profound implications for the water management approaches adopted.
Can you give us an overview of what you did in your nine weeks abroad?
I went into the trip with the main goal of gaining a better understanding of how water governance varied between cities and why, specifically reaching beyond information available from documents or online. I traveled to cities along the arid coast, like Ica and Piura,
that normally suffer from droughts and water shortages but will be subject to extensive flooding by the upcoming El Niño . Along with quantity issues, I also talked with stakeholders about the extensive challenges with water quality due to the lack of wastewater treatment and sedimentation from upstream deforestation. Overall, this trip provided preliminary research that helped me select case studies, refine the research questions, and shape the research in a way that is more relevant to current governance challenges.
Did you make any discoveries during this research trip?
I’ve worked with Latin America for years, but this was the first time I’ve specifically looked at water management in Peru, so the trip provided an opportunity to understand the intricacies of each basin: the water quantity and quality challenges, the physical and institutional system put in place, the actors and political dynamics, the cultural differences, the economic pressures, etc. One of the key take aways from the trip is broad shift towards green infrastructure in Peru, not just with regard to decisions made, but in terms of how the discourse has changed. Yet green infrastructure was increasingly interesting mainly given the variation across the country, being taken up in some places and not even considered in others.
How does being a practitioner/academic shape your research and goals?
While my research will have a rigorous theoretical component, I am also working to marry that with ways that it can have greater current relevance, not just in terms of the overall picture but as far as what actors involved are interested in knowing. For example, there is a new regulation obliging water utilities to contribute to upstream conservation, but there are many open questions concerning how those funds will be used and who will be part of that decision. I went to an event near an Aquafondo pilot project upstream of Lima, and the varied perceptions of green infrastructure and of the role of the city in upstream management were palpable.
About a quarter of AESS members are students at various academic levels. Do you have any advice for those considering a doctoral research tract?
I highly recommend doing preliminary fieldwork. I was fortunate to have received two grants, which I know are not common, but it helped me strengthen my research in several ways. It provided me insight that is helping me refine my research questions and theoretical framework, as well as understand how it can have practical relevance. Preliminary research also helps identify potential future challenges, like the difficulty of getting good interviews after elections or after El Nino.
We are delighted that Abby was able to share her pictures and experiences from Peru. If you have questions about her research or trip, please leave a comment below.
Our members represent a diverse body within the environmental field. And they are always doing something! We are currently looking for more members to share their stories. Please contact the AESS Program Coordinator, with your name, a brief bio with your field of study/profession, and member spotlight topic (e.g. recent research trip, current career highlight, interesting experience related to environmental science/studies, etc.).