Monthly Archives: August 2016

Boosting Society’s Valuation of Water by Blending Environmental History with Social Science and Civil Engineering at the University of Sheffield

By Leona Skelton

After finishing  my  project, ‘Degeneration and Regeneration on the Tyne: River Pasts, Presents and Futures’, in November 2015, I embarked on a challenging but very worthwhile opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield within the Sheffield Water Centre’s (SWC) Pennine Water Group (as it came to a close). Since January 2016, I’ve been working within SWC’s new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded (EPSRC) five-year research project, ‘TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact’.  The project was designed in response to  EPSRC’s Grand Challenge for Water. It aims to find innovative and interdisciplinary solutions to the serious challenges which threaten the UK water industry’s long-term sustainability up to 2065 and beyond, notably its ageing infrastructure, leakage and the low value water users place on water. Working closely with civil engineers, social scientists and industry partners has enabled me to deploy my environmental history expertise strategically and usefully. It has also sharpened my awareness of the practical uses and the unique value of environmental history research in the context of infrastructural, societal, attitudinal and governance challenges in the water industry.

Today, UK water users wash their cars and hose their lawns using water which meets a standard sufficiently high for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing of highly complex medicines. Yet many households are charged little more than £1 a day for the water-supply and sewerage services on which they rely very heavily for the basic processes of daily life. Until people experience an interruption of supply, few truly appreciate the complexity and exceptionally high ‘value for money’ in their water services. If consumers were asked to sort their utility bills into rank order according to: 1) value for money or 2) according to how much they would be prepared to pay for them, how many would place water at the top of either of these hierarchies? Where would broadband and energy fall in relation to water? TWENTY65 is developing disruptive technologies and more effective mobilisation initiatives to increase water users’ valuing of water, to reduce water usage and to give water users a stake in the infrastructure on which they rely so heavily.

As a historian, I’ve considered in depth the factors which have reduced people’s valuation of water over time. Increasingly centralised and efficient water services have facilitated an increasing physical distance between the consumer and the processes of using and disposing of water. In short, the engineers have done too good a job behind the scenes, enabling water users for the most part to take their water supply, waste water disposal and their water engineers for granted. TWENTY65 comprises eight themes, ranging from demand-based technologies for tailored treatment, to robotic autonomous systems for water infrastructure inspection, to integrated urban water management and reuse systems.

I have been working with a social scientist, Dr Liz Sharp, on theme six, ‘Enhancing Water Services through Mobilisation’, which seeks to demonstrate the potentially powerful non-technological ways in which people can be mobilised to change their behaviour as water users. We are arguing that consumers can be encouraged and supported to become more engaged with their water services, water infrastructure and the regulation of water use and abuse in their local communities, obviating at least exclusive reliance on complex and expensive robotic technologies.

Currently, several serious risks endanger water security: climate change, underinvestment in infrastructure, complex and counterproductive regulation of the water sector and water users’ low valuation of water (largely resulting from their poor understanding of its complex and expensive functions). Attitudinal changes brought about by increasing water citizenship initiatives would help to mitigate these risks by reducing water consumption, increasing the value placed on water (and potentially the amount people are prepared to pay for water) and widening water users’ perspectives to embrace the whole ecosystem and the water cycle which runs through it.

TWENTY65 Thought Leadership Clubs (TLCs) enable academics from several disciplines and a wide range of water industry partners to work together to develop potential solutions to the industry’s major challenges. At the last TLC, in Sheffield in July 2016, we discussed many issues, including why the UK government doesn’t have a Water Minister. This is a very good question. If we had a Water Minister, would they be able to catalyse attitudinal changes which could substantially increase the value society places on water? It might be worth a shot. In addition to the TLCs, we are writing eight white papers which will be disseminated across the water industry. They discuss how ‘Big Data’, ‘Water Citizenship’ and the ‘Storage and Recovery of Energy’ from sewerage systems could support the water industry’s long-term sustainability and resilience, drawing from a wide range of case studies from around the world.

The ‘Hydraulic State’, a political-ecologic paradigm coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957]) developed with five salient characteristics: 1) centralised governance frameworks; 2) technical engineering expertise; 3) investment in hard infrastructure; 4) centralised supply and disposal networks; and 5) disengaged water users. However, in seeking to explore what forms of distributed and user-organised services might replace the ‘Hydraulic State’, surprisingly little attention is given to highly relevant past experiences of water services which were locally distributed, did not rely on costly engineering expertise, were closely aligned with local environmental needs and were not environmentally or financially expensive.

As water managers currently explore whether and how to disassemble technocratic enterprises to make way for more participatory and democratic forms of decision making, past experiences of distributed or transitionary forms of water management may offer patterns of water practices or of institutional-public relations that can inspire the planning of alternative water futures. By looking back through time at the governance frameworks of water use which the Hydraulic State broke down gradually and eventually replaced, I have argued that we can find inspiration for new and different ways of re-engaging water users with the systems and processes which underpin their most vital, life-sustaining utility service.

This invaluable interdisciplinary experience will stand me in good stead as I return to a History Department (and to the Tyne!) in my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in Newcastle. In July 2016, I handed in the manuscript of Tyne after Tyne to White Horse Press, and I felt overwhelmed by its 112,000 words. Writing a five-century history of one river’s dramatic story was challenging, to put it mildly, and I was quite proud of a fairly mammoth work, having analysed around 1.5 million words of archival and oral history transcriptions.

But last week, for the first time in months, I visited the river near Gateshead and as I watched the Tyne’s powerful flow charging down its channel towards the sea, my manuscript seemed comparatively pithy. No book, however lengthy, could ever do justice to such a mighty river, packed to the brim with such a multitude of deep and complex meanings in the minds of all of the different people who’ve interacted with it over five centuries. It’s a big river, and I’ve written a big book about it, but I haven’t written the river’s total history. I’ve merely taken a tour through the major milestones, highlighting some of the most insightful socio-environmental relationships it has forged with the humans who have used and abused it, and played with, loved and become frustrated with it, from one generation to the next.

Tyne at Dunston

Looking Upriver from Dunston (Photo: Leona Skelton)

As I looked up the steep river banks behind me towards Windmill Hills, I remembered very clearly sitting up there on a bench one dull, cold day with my primary school class at the age of ten (in 1994, before the new housing estates were built there). The teacher had given each of us a sheet of paper on a clipboard and some charcoal pencils and asked us to draw the riverscape below us. We all smudged the charcoal on the paper to give the impression of enormous clouds of smoke. Everyone’s hands, coats and clothes were marked with the charcoal. We all drew the bridges, the river and the buildings of Newcastle, but some of my classmates drew enormous smoky ships which weren’t there. Others drew very large fish and I drew a big old-fashioned sail ship like the ones I’d seen at the Tall Ships event in 1993. I remember the teacher’s disbelief as she looked at the various pictures. She made us start again. “Draw what you see”, she instructed. But even at ten years old, we were envisioning different rivers in our minds, unique visions of our local river produced from a combination of family anecdotes, memorable events such as the Garden Festival (1990) and the Tall Ships Race (1993), lessons at school about pollution and its impact on fish (always bright orange, smiling, cartoon fish) and our own visits to the river, the beginnings of our generation’s relationship with it, and, not least, of the river’s relationship with us. What would Tyneside’s ten year-olds draw today…? What would the ten year-olds of 1900 have drawn?



Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957)

TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact