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This expert on water scarcity would never call herself a 'genius.' But MacArthur would

Anthropologist Amber Wutich embeds in communities only at their invitation — a method she calls 'participant observation.' Much of her work focuses on alleviating water insecurity.
MacArthur Foundation
Anthropologist Amber Wutich embeds in communities only at their invitation — a method she calls 'participant observation.' Much of her work focuses on alleviating water insecurity.

Newly minted MacArthur Fellow Amber Wutich says anthropology has historically had an "Indiana Jones problem."

"We have a history and even a contemporary problem of people coming into communities in a way that's not respectful, that's extractive," she says.

Instead, Wutich takes what she describes as a "justice oriented" approach to research, where she is invited by people living in troubled communities to come in, observe, and help solve the problems they are facing. For most of her career, the problem she has been trying to help solve is water insecurity.

"Water insecurity is an outcome of human manufactured systems. It can occur anywhere," she says. "Most people reading this piece probably have neighbors in their own backyards experiencing water insecurity. And about half the world will be in water stress conditions by 2030."

Wutich is being recognized for her groundbreaking research showing how social structures, such as water sharing among neighbors and delivery via trucks, are used as a substitute for infrastructure in water limited communities and how a lack of water impacts people's mental health in those communities.

She's conducted research in over a dozen countries, including Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. She also is co-founder and co-director of the Global Ethnohydrology Study and director of the Action for Water Equity Consortium, which develops water access infrastructure for communities on the U.S.-Mexico border.

NPR spoke to Wutich about what it felt like to win the so-called "genius grant," how water insecurity affects communities and her experiences traveling the world to do research. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on being named a MacArthur "genius" award winner, Amber! How do you feel? Do you think of yourself as a genius?

It's very shocking and very humbling. When you get the call, you're only allowed to call one other person and tell them the news. And so I chose my doctoral mentor Russ Bernard, whom I've been working with for 30 years. He said, "my first advice to you is to never refer to yourself as a genius." So I will have to tell you in the most robust and sincere way possible that I would never refer to myself as a genius.

How did you become interested in the topic of water insecurity?

I'm from Miramar, Florida [near Miami] and like everyone in south Florida I grew up with hurricanes. So I can remember Hurricane Andrew when our electricity and our clean water service got knocked out. We depended fundamentally on our neighbors to survive. And so I think that experience really oriented me to understanding how social networks and cultural norms form the backbone of human response to crises. And then I just started working on water because it's the most important thing to humans and I wanted to be of use.

Is water insecurity something that you've experienced yourself? Can you describe what that's like?

Oh, I've definitely experienced quite a bit of water insecurity. As an anthropologist, our main method is participant observation, which means that we live with people experiencing the phenomenon we're studying and we embed in their lives. So I spent years living in informal communities that have no water access.

Imagine you went camping for the weekend and you took some bottles of water with you and maybe there was the river there but it wasn't safe to drink the water and there's no toilet. You are scrambling to find money to buy more bottles of water but they're not sold anywhere nearby. You drink the water and it makes you sick. You've got to go to work but you have no place to shower and there's human waste piling up that you need to figure out how to dispose of. Just imagine that's your daily life and how challenging and stressful it would be.

When I think about standout moments for myself, they're usually terrible moments of me making mistakes around water or toilets, me realizing I've made a social faux pas and can only access water from this place and not that place or desperately trying to find a water vendor to sell me enough water to get to the next day.

Much of your work over the past couple of decades has been in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. What led you to begin working in that community?

Cochabamba is the place where the water war happened. In 2000, the Cochabamba government tried to privatize all of its water resources [leading to increased prices for water and access for only industry and middle class neighborhoods] and people rose up in protest against this. People were protesting in the streets and there was some violent response from the government.

So the protesters in the city actually won the water war and everything reverted back to the way it had been before, which meant that people living in 50% of the city [still] did not have water service. And so that was when communities started to ask to work with me.

So you were invited to live in this community to observe and experience the conditions there for yourself. What was that like?

My first extended fieldwork in Cochabamba, Bolivia was for nearly two years, renting a room in a small house that has limited services and infrastructure. And in that time, we learned everything from how to live on 10 liters [2.5 gallons] of water a day, how to use a toilet that doesn't flush and how we have to interact with our neighbors when our lives depend on them providing us with water. It takes months even to gain the most basic competence in how to live day to day.

And that's led you to documenting how social structures replace water infrastructure in these communities. Can you give us an example of what those social structures are?

One example was a woman named Sophia, who lived at the far outskirts of the community that I was living in. Her family regularly ran out of water [there was no piped water supply] and she explained to me how she navigated her social network to use combinations of barter and favors and long-term friendships and monetary exchanges to ensure that her two young daughters had enough water to have food and drink on a day-to-day basis.

How do you conduct research in Cochabamba and the other communities you've been to in an ethical way? Are you trying to improve water access for people while you're there?

The very first and most important thing is going into communities in a way that respects the community's needs and desires for the field work and ensures that our work is welcomed. There are two guiding principles that my team's always tried to adhere to. One is "failure is not an option," because people's survival depends on water. That means we have to find ways to support and organize systems to provide water. But also the communities have to be able to say no – we can't force new systems onto people if they don't consent. So that's really the heart of the way that we approach these research partnerships.

You've made major commitments and personal sacrifices to study and help improve water access all over the world. When you're not hard at work, what do you do to relax?

I spend the rest of my time with my family really having wonderful experiences. And as I mentioned, they've always come with me on my fieldwork, and we've had many adventures, which my children call mishaps, and I find all of that quite fulfilling. They're 14 and 9 and they definitely have their complaints.

Is there anything that those of us who aren't dealing with water insecurity can do in our own lives to help make things easier for those that are?

Even if we don't perceive it, we are all dealing with it because we're collectively creating the social structures that are producing water insecurity for everyone, even if it's not hitting our household or our community just yet. So being cognizant of that, and trying in whatever way feels right to people to construct communities and networks that can help us weather these challenges.

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Max Barnhart
Max Barnhart is the 2022 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at NPR. He is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate and science journalist studying the evolution of heat stress resistance in sunflowers at the University of Georgia.