Global water insecurity will worsen as climate change destroys existing infrastructure, displaces populations, and intensifies existing inequalities. My approach is to leverage social infrastructure—informal economies, social networks, and cultural norms—to distribute water in fair and just ways. Social infrastructure, unlike fixed water systems, goes wherever humans do. As an anthropologist specializing in methodologically-rigorous and cross-cultural research, I uncover hidden water solutions and detect how they work best across cultures. Discoveries from my work include: (1) water vendors who self-manage informal water economies to guarantee a human right to water; (2) households who self-organize “water sharing” networks to redistribute water to meet survival needs; and (3) novel methods to monitor water insecurity interventions. My work amplifies under-appreciated solutions that communities innovated locally, but have been invisible to researchers, markets, and governments.
One of the biggest barriers to leveraging hidden social infrastructure for water is past injustices. Marginalization, disempowerment, and exploitation are common experiences for people living in water-insecure communities. My approach addresses this head-on by galvanizing teams of researchers and community members to collaboratively study and improve water insecurity. For example, our NSF-funded “Action for Water Equity” project develops and deploys water insecurity interventions for the 2000+ colonias (informal communities) on the US-Mexico border. We take a justice-oriented, pro-poor, community-based participatory approach to address water insecurity. By creating convergence between communities and trans-disciplinary researchers, we can harness the power of local knowledge combined with social, cyber, and physical infrastructure. This will enable us to scale up the impact of hidden water insecurity solutions through massive, ubiquitous social infrastructure