Crossing the frontiers


Crossing the frontiers

The challenge of transdisciplinary research

Peri-Urban groundwater management in the Indo-Gangetic delta: societal demands for evidence-based policies and decisions have been increasing. Transdisciplinary research may help to build evidence for the many societal challenges that have a level of complexity that requires thorough and rigorous analysis. In the past five years, a team of researchers and civil society organisations have been executing the ‘Shifting Grounds’ project.

In 2013, this Urbanising Deltas of the World project was jointly formulated together with local community and government stakeholders. The aim was to combine research, capacity building and development activities to address peri-urban groundwater problems in cities in Bangladesh and India. At the end of this transdisciplinary project the researchers and practitioners reflected on their experiences with mixing real-world community development with scientific research.

Peri-urban challenges

Peri-urban areas are the spaces at the periphery of cities that usually bear the brunt of urban expansion by providing the much needed resources, while acting as receptacles of urban waste. They are spaces in transition, that present some features of both urban and rural environments.

Peri-urban spaces are characterised by changing patterns of natural resource use, shaped by the reallocation of land and water resources. Institutionally such spaces are complex and there is a diversity of social and economic interests. This poses challenges for natural resource access and governance. Local awareness of natural resource issues can be weak and there is need for capacity building of the resource users to better represent their interests to state agencies. Transdisciplinary research could provide an appropriate way to address these issues.

In cities such as Khulna in Bangladesh and Kolkata in India, rapid urbanisation has resulted in an increasing pressure on groundwater resources in peri-urban areas. Increased climatic variability, degrading surface water sources, land use change, coupled with unequal caste-class-power structures, rules, norms and practices, create pressure on already stressed groundwater tables and lead to uncoordinated overexploitation of aquifers. The resulting lack of access to groundwater during critical periods affects the livelihood securities of the vulnerable and contributes to the incidence of poverty.

Transdisciplinary research and the Negotiated Approach

Transdisciplinary research adds societal relevance and participation of societal stakeholders to interdisciplinary endeavours. It is a process of mutual learning among scientists from various disciplines and societal actors aimed at the creation of knowledge that helps to address big societal challenges. Many of the key challenges that transdisciplinary research itself faces, relate to the necessary representation and participation of societal actors.

In transdisciplinary research, a participatory and community-based approach can be chosen for. The Negotiated Approach is one of the approaches that does not just invite communities, but also builds capacity and empowers local communities.

The creation of strategic and coordinating platforms for negotiations among the different societal actors is a critical success factor. And access to knowledge development for local platforms and continuous learning are important pillars, recognising community knowledge as well as rigorous and innovative science. Although the Negotiated Approach has been developed and used in several communities in the global South, it is not a set of tools or methods that can be easily replicated. Rather, it is a set of principles, accompanied by a large range of potentially useful tools for participatory environmental management.

Did you know? The Negotiated Approach is developed by several NGOs, and supported and spearheaded by the Dutch NGO Both ENDS

Although many established principles and practices exist for transdisciplinary research, its application is rarely ever easy. The peri-urban areas where the Shifting Grounds project worked, was known and in fact selected for its difficult working conditions. It was observed that current stakeholders were at most coping to keep up with the fast changing demands and pressures of their urbanizing surroundings. Thus, the reflection on the transdisciplinary research experiences at the end of the project, resulted in the identification of several trade-offs and dilemmas, a selection of which is highlighted here.

Trade-off: Research and community development: Whose needs?

Researchers and community members are likely to have different needs and perceptions. In the Shifting Grounds project, the researchers focused on long-term sustainable groundwater management, while community members faced acute drinking water problems that required short-term immediate solutions.

Leon Hermans, principal investigator of the Shifting Grounds project: ‘We have dealt with these diverging perspectives by trying to accommodate both, by making conscious choices and communicating those as clearly as we could. Accommodating the short-term community needs required us to mobilise additional resources and support, which was done in different ways for Kolkata and Khulna: Arsenic trainings and mapping in Kolkata, and test drillings and relocated waste dump sites for Khulna. This enabled us to deliver some tangible results for the community, although of course still limited.’

Addressing short-term needs may actually be questionable from a longer term sustainability perspective
- Leon Hermans

Addressing short-term needs, and showing short-term results may be required to build enthusiasm and ownership for self-governance, but these short-term solutions may actually be questionable from a longer term sustainability perspective. Simply relocating a waste-dump, or drilling another public well, are clear examples.

Research and engagement: What first?

One of the feelings from the NGO facilitators of the Negotiated Approach process in Kolkata was that the community development results would have been better if research activities would have been undertaken first. A deeper and more profound understanding of social relations and local alliances and networks could have helped in the smoother execution of the Negotiated Approach process.

At the same time, researchers signalled that they had benefited from the relations build through the early stages of the Negotiated Approach process, when they conducted their interviews, focus group discussions and survey activities. Furthermore, whatever activity would have started first, important limitations or complications would have remained. Local politics were important, both in Kolkata and Khulna. These would have been hard to observe even if more socio-economic background information would have been available from the start.

Tackling the Hard Questions or the Easy Ones?

The Negotiated Approach has multiple objectives. It aims to be fair, sustainable, inclusive, pro-poor, empowering communities, and establishing self-governance and a self-sustaining process. Similar objectives inspiried the research activities. Those objectives, however, are not necessarily compatible or complementary. Trade-offs and choices are inevitable, at least within the timeframe of a five-year process. For instance, ensuring support for a pro-poor and fair process may conflict with inclusiveness: in Khulna, the local NGO Jagrata Juba Shangha (JJS) made the conscious choice to focus on the poor members of the community, and thus it spent less time and effort to also include the powerful elites, given limited resources.

Who is in, and who is not?

Perhaps the greatest challenge was dealing with local power structures and the diversity of interests and groups that characterise peri-urban spaces. In both villages, some groups were excluded due to limited resources and limited time. This necessitated choices for issues to focus on, and for groups within the community to work with. Sometimes through ‘self-selection’, sometimes because resources simply did not allow to engage an ill-structured group such as the recent migrants in Khulna.

The more powerful groups may be more reluctant to engage in a process that is likely to change the status-quo. The least organised groups are least capable to engage in the process, even if they are most in need. This raises questions of how representative the Negotiated Approach processes are, and how more groups can be reached and mobilised to participate. It also calls again attention to biases that very easily also creep into research activities, and which are not always accounted for in the reports and datasets that result from research. Biases in data samples dues to access and engagement are likely to feature in those, but are not easily revealed – and in some cases, researchers may even fail to realize the presence of these biases in their samples.

Starting from Conflict or Harmony?

Especially in Kolkata, but also in Khulna, it became clear fairly soon in the process, that some of the the most severe and profound conflicts were too difficult to tackle. Drinking water issues emerged as problems with a somewhat lower degree of conflict, making those a good choice to start the Negotiated Approach. At the same time, this left the harder issues, the more intense conflicts within the communities, untouched. For a real long-term sustainable development and self-governance, these conflicts would need to be confronted. Doing so at the onset of a relatively limited intervention, however, would risk creating more disruption than a contribution to conflict resolution.

And still, at the end of the day

The main lesson was to be aware of these different trade-offs, dilemmas and conflicting objectives, to acknowledge that it is impossible to realise all these objectives together at once, and consciously balance the multiple success factors involved. This does not mean that ‘anything goes’, but that safeguarding minimum standards across objectives may well be more helpful than aiming for maximum success on just a few.

Despite all the learnings and lessons, all researchers and development practitioners, look back on their experiences in an overall positive way. If asked again, each and every one would decide to join again. And we suspect that the very same sentiment exists within the communities with whom we have worked in Khulna and Kolkata. At the end of the day, it was hard work with many limitations and lessons learned, but it was all well worth the effort.

Read further

Authors: the Shifting Grounds project team

  • Sharlene Gomes, Leon Hermans, Wil Thissen - Delft University of Technology, Delft, the Netherlands
  • Vishal Narain - Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India
  • Poulomi Banerjee - SaciWATERs, Hyderabad, India
  • Rezaul Hasan, Mashfiqus Salehin, Shah Alam Khan - Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • ATM Zakir Hossain, Kazi Faisal Islam, Sheikh Nazmul Huda - Jagrata Juba Shangha (JJS), Khulna, Bangladesh
  • Partha Sarathi Banerjee, Binoy Majumder, Soma Majumder - The Researcher, Kolkata, India
  • Remi Kempers - Both ENDS, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

The publication has been prepared as part of the project “Shifting Grounds: Institutional transformation, enhancing knowledge and capacity to manage groundwater security in peri-urban Ganges delta systems” All pictures used come from this publication.