Constructing a Paradigm: Who Should Know What, Where, How and Why?

by Dr. Christiaan Morssink

Rockman in frozen water © pam lazos

I watched in horror as the young French woman was transported by dug-out canoe (with outboard engine) across the river to the hospital on the other side. She made the mistake of swimming while having her period, oblivious to the piranhas abundant in those waters. 

“Tomorrow we will start with breaking ice,” Dana Prince announced during our first meeting, when the Philadelphia team had met their Cameroonian counterparts. Next morning, the group engaged in ball throwing, called each other out to make a string of words by mental association, mentioned their favorite foods, etc. After 15 minutes, when we sat down to get to work, Mr. Fobang asked: When are we going to break ice? 

We heard loud quarreling noises as our guide was admonished by an elder in Djoemoe. We, radio and cable professionals from The Netherlands, were on a sightseeing trip into the interior and found the rapids in the river quite appealing for a refreshing dip. Unknown to us, we had also stepped into grave danger as these rapids are home to large electric eels. The guide knew but took the attitude of “why bother warning these know-it-all bakras what to do.” 

All this to say — you need to know your waters before you swim, drink, or travel in from or on them. You need to know how your language is infused with water symbols that are steeped in our own ecology. And you need to know some of the social and political wrongs from the political past and present, when assessing trust in a different environment. Our knowing is always limited. 

Leininger uses a sunrise diagram to frame her Transcultural Nursing Theory. In obesity research, the horizon diagram is used to depict distal and proximal factors that influence obesity prevalence from the individual outward. Dahlgren and Whitehead use the horizon model to describe the (social) Determinants of Health

Water literacy © arianna rich

I find the sunrise/horizon diagram an effective way to describe what water literacy means at both the consumer and professional level.  Water literacy is a measure at the individual level and a collective measure at the community/national level, and it addresses both the consumer/citizens necessary level of skills and knowing as well as the distribution of knowledge at the professional level, reflecting all the dominant divisions of labor, e.g., engineering, law, biology, public health, economics, communication, social science, etc.  This diagram attempts to describe the necessary levels and classifications of water literacy that capture the full capacities of the nations and regions for being optimally literate in any watershed.  It makes it possible to then develop tools to measure and improve water literacy levels at the consumer level as well as in the different professional domains. The model is built around the concept of ‘the watershed” but can easily be expanded to the “water’s edge”, incorporating oceanography, seafaring, and sea exploration, including  fisheries and sea-agriculture.

At the bottom of the diagram we project the phenomenon of water, the reality of water as it is in the watershed. On the top of the diagram we conceptualize, using concentric semi-circles, four levels of literacy, e.g., individual, household, community, and interconnected communities. Around these circles we project professional water literacy, reflecting the usual divisions of labor in modern society. There can be siloed knowledge, crossover knowledge between disciplines, and the dynamics of knowledge expansion. Knowledge generation and dissemination are ritualized in different ways, reflecting power dynamics and cultural norms. I use the notion of social cohesion to underscore my understanding of water as a commons, proximity to identify the (perceived geographic, but also social distances possible in a watershed, and belonging to underscore that all in the watershed should share a sense of the right to a “stakeholdership”.

sustainable aquaculture © stacey lazos

 All knowledge/literacy is stored in individuals, either as part of their cognition and/or their memory functions, or by the fact that they know where to find that knowledge in libraries, on the internet, or via elders and professionals. All persons will grow up learning about water in terms of drinking, bathing, cleaning, navigating, handling, storing, and discarding. Some go further and apply sports, or artistic exploration. So be it. Through the dynamics of developmental psychology and behavioral-emotional growth, young people will incorporate the norms and attitudes that befit the cultural aspects of water literacy. Water literacy can thus be considered to have an age-specific component at the individual level. In all, we can measure and assess/improve water literacy of any human being in the context of age, gender, behavior, culture, health, ecology. 

At the household level, knowledge of the individual is expanded to incorporate things like gender issues around hygiene, sharing available water and facilities, doing chores regarding hygiene and sanitation, paying for services, and understanding that the compound/home/castle/ is the end/begin point for any measure in the water and hygiene infrastructure. 

At the community level, knowledge needs to be measured around stormwater management, how “safe” water is (made) available and at what quantity, how waste and run-off are organized, how “we are all in this together” is expressed in policies and politics, how our local ecology is suffering (or not) and can be improved through proper water management and stewardship. It is where the distinction can be made between consumer uses of water and livelihood and commercial uses of water. For example: How can firefighters and emergency personnel rely on enough water (directly, like driving a tanker to a fire, or indirectly, by hooking up to fire hydrants). At the community level, policies, politics and “cohesiveness” become a big part of the water literacy for governance. 

down by the river © pam lazos

Between communities, the issues in the watershed relate to understanding what each is doing in relation to the other:  where upstream meets downstream; where harbors near the sea’s edge get to transport further upstream; where pollution practices upstream can create havoc downstream; where damnification can become a stakeholders’ game of negotiation or a “weaponization of a river”.  It’s where the whole of the watershed becomes a topic of knowing. In the world of water literacy, this is where the collective use of all data (and the trust therein) from the watershed becomes part of the overarching governance structure. 

The rays of the paradigm/schemata are reflecting the divisions of labor. Here we group them by classes in the political economy, reflecting the current trends of division of labor. An emerging profession in this field is Environmentalism. Trending towards extinction, on the other hand, are the dowsers; their use of sticks or other “water sensing” devices have become obsolete. In each of these rays, specialty knowledge needs to be sufficiently available to make good governance of the watershed a reality. Many of these professions are “licensed” and may tend to price their knowledge and privileges in the “market of goods and services”. Licensing itself then becomes part of the “governance of the watershed.” In the watershed, governance structures should be set up where “generalists” are charged to assure that the different barracks/silos in which the specialists are housed are able, willing, and ready to communicate and act for the welfare of the whole of humanity in the watershed.

water through sunlight and glass © pam lazos

I started this exercise about water literacy, because of my observations on the impact that lack of “complete” knowledge has on capacities in and of the communities regarding stewardship or the waters in their basin. Too many people in the field use too many different perspectives, borrowed from too many different schools of thought. Commercial and Trading Banking is almost universal, Agro-banking banking, while well- established now in OECD countries, is still new in many parts of the world. Banking for irrigation infrastructure still requires much learning for bankers in the financial centers in each nation.

How do you finance privately in something that’s a public good, a good of the commons, and is that a good thing? In all, we can assess the levels and sectors of knowledge needed and at work in each watershed, and if we can assess “holes” in that knowledge, we can undertake efforts to ‘fill those holes, knowing full well that the dissemination of knowledge is a continuous exercise. Conceptualizing where to assess and what to assess underlies my effort to construct this paradigm. 

Dr. Morssink is the President of the Global Water Alliance and his interests are as varied and flowing as water itself, and include: the effects of the built environment on health, elimination of health disparities, hunger, and urban farming, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world. Water is his first love.