Research in the Development Geography and Political Ecology group

One research direction for the research group will be the implications of the climate change adaptation-development nexus for waterscapes.

In responding to climate change, it is widely accepted that adaptation (alongside mitigation) is essential, yet the nature of such adaptation is not always sufficiently interrogated.  This is important in the Global South, where it is recognized that lower-income groups are likely to be especially vulnerable to and affected by the impacts of climate change.  This raises the risk that a disproportionate expectation is placed on these groups to adopt significant lifestyle and livelihood changes through adaptation.  Here, as others have argued, it is important to design responses in ways that do not only address the effects of vulnerability, but also its (political economic) causes.  I have co-written about these risks in relation to the proposed replacement of rural drinking water systems with desalinated water in Chile, and the transition from pastoralism to small agriculture in Ethiopia.

These dynamics play out in a wider context whereby the agendas of adaptation and development – both economic and human – are becoming increasingly integrated in the Global South.  This is happening through ‘green economy’ policy frameworks that promote modes of economic development that are both low-carbon and adaptive, international aid agendas that increasingly mainstream adaptation into development policy (e.g. through disaster risk reduction), and adaptation responses that aim to promote resource security for market-based economies in the face of detrimental effects of climate change.  This again raises the question of what policy directions are being promoted as part of adaptation, and in what/whose interests these are configured.  In this regard, water security is a key axis of adaptation, both because increasing drought and flood risks are among the most significant impacts of climate change for people and economies, and also because interventions that are framed as adaptation often depend upon the availability of, and/or increase demand for, water resources (e.g. irrigation, hydroelectric dams).  This raises the prospect of significant trade-offs between water exploitation for economic development and water conservation for adaptation.  The research group will work on understanding the implications of this relationship and the synergies and tensions that arise, by examining how development and adaptation influence different elements of the waterscape, including hydrological processes and ecosystem services, basic infrastructure and services, policy and institutional responses, water allocation and uses, and narratives around the water-adaptation nexus.

Governance is also an important part of this relationship.  Too often, technical solutions (e.g. climate-smart crop varieties) are privileged, to the neglect of governance as a process through which collective decisions about futures are made.  For example, framing adaptation to increasing water scarcity as the need to ensure continuous water supply justifies the construction of water storage infrastructure, yet in a way that often neglects consideration of how additional stored water could or should be allocated among potential water users.  An approach to water security based on hydrosocial relations offers the possibility to address adaptation from a different angle, that is, not by asking how social groups can adapt to water scarcity, but rather how water-society relations can be reformed to promote adaptation.

A further increasingly important theme in relation to adaptation and water security is urban resilience.  On the one hand, levels of urbanization in the Global South continue to increase due to political-economic drivers, and, on the other, urban areas – and especially lower-income settlements - can be especially prone to environmental risk (e.g. flooding, lack of access to urban services) due to their built-up surface, population concentration, and modes of governance (e.g. privatization of utilities).  However, much work around resilience considers the urban as a material landscape that is simply the background to environmental inequalities and risks, and neglects that vulnerability is bound up in the process of the production of urban space.  While many approaches to urban resilience focus on modifications to urban space and infrastructure, such as through ‘nature-based solutions’, the research group will extend work on the role of the processes of urban planning and governance in both producing risks as well as potentially alleviating them.


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Prof. Dr. Jessica Budds

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Valerie McCool

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