Interview with Yu Chen (University of Toronto) & Enrique Lomnitz (Isla Urbana)
What are the major impacts this collaborative project has had to date?
Yu Chen: We started this collaboration two years ago and we built a gradual understanding of each other’s capacities and how we can complement each other’s work. But also, there is a general sense of solidarity and friendship that is organic. A project like this needs to be a transdisciplinary initiative that involves not only academics from different disciplines, but also practitioners and local communities. Academic institutions have the technology and the knowledge expertise, but that does not necessarily translate into social impact that meets the needs of local communities.
This collaboration has resulted in six joint community-based studies with Isla Urbana, focusing on key aspects of rainwater harvesting and community water initiatives such as water disinfection, water quality testing, user interaction with the system, among others. While most of these studies are ongoing, we have observed a significant interest in the findings when presented at conferences and workshops. We continue to learn a great deal from Isla Urbana. So far, the project has involved 2 professors, 2 labs, 4 graduate students and 9 undergraduate students in different capacities. For us it is a great educational opportunity for our students to have first-hand experience on eco-technologies and community-based research.
Another great learning from Isla Urbana is the capacity for research communication. Key personnel in Isla Urbana include many professional engineers. In the field, they are able to communicate terminologies and professional knowledge to the community members and learn from the community about how to work together on these water initiatives. This is a great example for our engineering students.
Enrique Lomnitz: As a non-academic, I think these partnerships are important because academics bring specific expertise to the table. Trying to understand what is going on when you install 10,000 rainwater harvesting systems requires an entire skillset that we don’t necessarily possess. There is always an opportunity in these collaborations to explore important aspects of the work that our own lack of expertise and/or resources doesn’t allow us to get into. Right now, for example, we are looking at long-term evaluation of rainwater harvesting systems. I think this can be enormously valuable and this only happened because we have been collaborating for a while, allowing us to build an understanding of each other’s work and the trajectory of collaboration. So, these collaborations have increasing value over time.
What contributions does this collaborative project bring to the broader field of water justice and water security?
Enrique Lomnitz: There is a whole kind of ecosystem of things that need to be happening for a paradigm shift to occur. The interplay between propositional ideas, technologies, economies, conversations, discourses, and public policy, etc. That can’t be only pushed by implementation-oriented organizations like Isla Urbana. You need buy-in from the different sectors collectively for this paradigm shift to happen.
Yu Chen: For CGEN, a key research area is sustainable water and sanitation. Specially, in the face of climate change, it is important to think about these paradigm shifts towards integrating decentralized infrastructure with centralized conventional infrastructure and to think of it as a flexible, more affordable, low impact, environmentally friendly approach to provide essential services. This will give prominence to community autonomy and to local governance. But to echo Enrique’s comment, it has to involve different disciplines and sectors to be able to translate all the theories, conceptual frameworks and findings into actual social impact.
When it comes to rainwater harvesting, what are the challenges for policymakers to make tangible changes in the lives of equity-deserving groups?
Enrique Lomnitz: One of them is access to information that they can trust, upon which they can make decisions. You can make all kinds of claims about rainwater harvesting and those claims could be totally unrealistic in the absence of good data. I think there is an absence of good data and predictive data. If they want to build more sound public policy towards rainwater harvesting, politicians need information and that doesn’t currently exist for them. We should be figuring if installed systems are used in the long-term by people, how they are used, and if they are being changed, if they are being expanded or whether people are using the water for different uses over time.
Yu Chen: Another challenge is that promoting decentralized systems requires a different paradigm of water governance. It is not just installing the systems and the government’s role is done. There should be more investment in ongoing support training to make sure the systems can function in the long term.
Can you speak more about your ongoing work with indigenous communities in Canada? What is the transferability of the lessons learned to different contexts?
Enrique Lomnitz: This is part of the broader ongoing collaboration that involves the Nipissing First Nation in Canada and three indigenous communities in Mexico. The work has been about knowledge sharing around rainwater harvesting, but also autonomous and local water management more generally. Five representatives from the Nipissing First Nations came to Mexico and we did this tour of different places, organizations, communities and projects. It would be great to ask them what they feel they’ve integrated from this experience. I’m sure, yes more knowledge about rainwater
harvesting, but I think a lot of it is more ideas about community organizations and the interplay between water management and culture. This kind of collaboration will help reveal where there is transferable or mutually fortifying or inspiring technologies or ideas.
Yu Chen: As academic partner in this knowledge mobilization effort, this year CGEN facilitates a capstone team working on this project with the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario. The capstone team is currently working with the Nipissing community and other project partners on designing and potentially installing rainwater harvesting system. I think Isla Urbana did enormous work in creating space for knowledge mobilization for indigenous communities. Isla Urbana has done a fantastic job facilitating this Nation-to-Nation dialogue around water security, water challenges and histories. For example, in our last trip to Mexico, all the participating indigenous communities shared their water stories, their relationship with water, the challenges they face, the initiatives they have taken in the past and their experience with rainwater harvesting. This I think is more important than installing a few systems. It is about seeing and developing a sense of connection to water and to the land.