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Water researchers in times of global change. What future for territories?

Chercheurs d'eau au temps des changements globaux. Quelles perspectives pour les territoires ?
Anne Rivière-Honegger et Stéphane Ghiotti


Research on water, in both its material and immaterial dimensions, is undergoing significant changes in the framework of the human and social sciences. This is occurring in parallel with the rise of major current and future challenges for and new issues in water management. In a context of global change that brings to the fore certain issues and outlines new hierarchies in all spatial and temporal dimensions, the questions facing research change, values evolve, governance and action plans must be redesigned. This issue of the journal will look into how the knowledge required to prepare territorialised management of water and aquatic environments is now being developed.

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1In light of the vast global change already in progress or to come, the relationships between societies and their environments, notably water, are undergoing profound modifications. The growing numbers and diversity of issues, of the stakeholders involved and of the territorial scales brought into play place the spatial and territorial aspects at the heart of the general questions for research. Numerous studies, whether stemming from the fields of ecology, approaches addressing socio-ecosystems or earlier work on critical geography (Swyngedouw, 2004), but also encompassing the fields of law, sociology, the political sciences, anthropology, etc.) acknowledge the role and the value of the notions of place, space and territory. They thus create bridges between disciplines and schools of thought (Mathevet et al., 2015 ; Barreteau et al., 2016 ; Matherson et al., 2017). What would be the value of global debates if the conditions of their implementation, as well as their local consequences and implications were not taken into account ? These are the topics and issues that we wish to address in this issue of Géocarrefour.

Water, a major topic requiring research to address global environmental issues

2Water is indispensable for ecosystems, human health and many activities, which all depend on its quality and quantity (drinking water, agriculture, industry, aquaculture, energy generation, waterways, navigation, recreational activities, fishing, outdoor activities and environmental protection, etc.). A number of uses create pressures and impact water resources and aquatic environments, as well as limit or create constraints for other uses. As a result, tensions or even conflicts develop, but efforts to cooperate often emerge as well (Raison and Magrin, 2009 ; Julien, 2010 ; Lasserre and de Palacio, 2016 ; Ganoulis and Fried, 2018). In Europe, water management, governed by the Water Framework Directive (2000), is based on the principles of collaboration and participation of all water stakeholders (elected officials, water consumers and users, national and local governments, etc.) and on regulatory objectives in view of attaining "good ecological status". On the scale of the territorial entity recognised as relevant, i.e. the river basin, the objective is to preserve and/or regain the good ecological status of water and aquatic environments while ensuring that human needs and uses are met. That requires territorial solidarity between the various categories of users, in the form of sustainable and balanced management of water resources and aquatic environments. This type of management notably brings into play a number of regulatory means (Drobenko, 2015), economic incentives (Petit, 2016) and participatory systems (Hassenforder et al., 2020). However, recent laws promoting decentralisation and the official recognition of EPCI-FPs (public entities for intertownship cooperation with the authority to raise taxes) as the structures in charge of implementing management policies for aquatic environments and the flood-prevention policy (GEMAPI) have modified the landscape and raised questions concerning the concept of relevant territories. On the international level, several of the sustainable development goals (SDG) to be reached by 2030 for "a better and more sustainable world for all" concern water. They address planetary challenges, notably those related to poverty, inequality, the climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice (UN, 2015). Throughout the world, water constitutes a major topic requiring research to address global environmental issues (UNESCO, 2020). The number of research programmes, international conferences, symposia and systems to federate researchers confirms the great amount of work put into addressing these issues by the scientific community.

Research on water is undergoing significant changes in the framework of the human and social sciences

3In the above context, research on water, in the material and technical fields on the one hand as well as in the social and immaterial on the other, is undergoing significant changes in the framework of the human and social sciences (geography, history, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, psycho-sociology, law, etc.) (Rivière-Honegger, Morandi and Cottet, 2012 ; Gautier, Benjaminsen, 2012 ; Guay and Britto, 2017 ; Barbier et al, 2020). The objective is to reconsider the links between societies and natural environments, increasingly perceived as a single system, consisting of interactions and dynamic dependencies (Chenorkian and Robert, 2014 ; Dufour and Lespez, 2019), and the target of renewed public policies. Project feedback has shown that territorial policies must address societies and environments in an integrated manner. Awareness of these changes is crucial given that, as noted by J.-J. Perenes, "Water portrays society, that is its power relations, but in spatial terms" (Perenes, 1993, p. 185). The stakes for the scientific community are two-fold, both theoretical (ranging from territorial aspects to the hydro-socio-system (Ghiotti, 2015) and its capacity to provide the knowledge required for action. That will require innovative theoretical and conceptual approaches and methods that must be shared and analysed. Faced with these changes, the questions raised evolve, new values gain ground (Pierron, 2017), governance and action adapt to the times (Barone and Mayaux, 2019 ; Bouleau, 2019). The context of global change clearly highlights certain issues and outlines new hierarchies in all spatial and temporal dimensions (Daniell, Barreteau, 2014 ; Boulay and Fanchette, 2019).

4As a direct result, public polices for water and aquatic environments must now address a wide range of issues, including development work on the human water cycle (drinking-water and sanitation infrastructure) and on the larger cycle (dams, transport systems, etc.), resource management and protection for both surface and groundwater, in terms of both its quality (pollution, aquatic waste, etc.) and its quantity (tensions concerning availability), protection of biodiversity, ecological restoration of aquatic environments (rivers, coasts, etc.), development of economic and recreational uses, risk management (flooding, etc.), management of usage conflicts, creation of governance systems suited to the set objectives, etc. All of these issues, increasingly complex and overlapping, must be coordinated on different territorial levels. Effective and suitable solutions often require an approach combining the social sciences, the environmental sciences and engineering know-how (Hellier et al., 2009 ; Carré and Deutsch, 2015 ; Goeldner-Gianella L. et al., 2016 ; Bouarfa, Brelle and Coulon, 2020 ; Leenhardt, Woltz and Barreteau, 2020) in formulating the research objectives and approach, and the implementation of water policies (Ferraton, 2016).

5The challenge for researchers working in conjunction with stakeholders active in water management is to produce structured knowledge that can be shared and transferred in spite of the uncertainties involved due to rapid and profound environmental change.

6Over the last few decades, continuous adaptations and efforts to innovate have been made in governance and attempts to integrate stakeholders. The success achieved is no longer the product of a single, all-powerful entity, but that of a group of territorial stakeholders. These changes have also produced modifications in the status granted to different types of knowledge. Today, the objective is to establish dialogue between technical, scientific and local knowledge, not to isolate each from the others (Claveau and Prud’homme, 2017). Public participation and involvement is a central issue, but has proven limited in its results. Project feedback has shown that the dialogue set up between stakeholders has produced multiple results, including co-construction and enhanced approval of projects, reductions in disagreements and conflicts, development of a "water culture", better adaptation of new challenges, etc. Dialogue expanded to include citizens produces a wide range of results, even the development of alternative knowledge bases via movements to mobilise, involve, learn, etc. (Barone et al., 2018). However, a paradox may also be observed, namely that elected officials and citizens have shown little interest in debating and becoming involved in water policy. Is the institutionalised and representative system of water democracy showing its limits ? What could participative democracy contribute to this problem ? A great amount of work has been put into these questions. But what are the potential solutions given that the current effort is to open dialogue to include stakeholders in local development as well as local inhabitants ?

7How is knowledge produced today, in the human and social sciences, to address the territorialised management of water and aquatic environments ? What work and analysis is proposed on the future issues of water, aquatic environments, biodiversity and risks pertaining to the human and larger water cycles ? These questions are being raised around the world. By multiplying examples from a diverse range of geographic situations it will be possible to produce a multi-faceted set of answers.

Three non-exclusive topics are highlighted here.

How can research in the human and social sciences spatially represent and analyse the links between societies and aquatic environments ?

8In the current context of territorial reforms (notably in France), the third WFD cycle (2021-2027) and the array of European directives in general, and of pressing international issues (ecological transition, climate change, preservation of biodiversity, adaptation, etc.), there is considerable debate (Leclabart, Quentin, 2019 ; Touchart L., Bartout P., 2020) on several aspects of the overall situation, e.g. responsibilities, stakeholders, territorial scales, funding, general guidelines (management on the river-basin scale, ecological continuity, restoration, participation, biodiversity, etc.). It is certainly useful to recall the successive steps, to portray the overall evolution, to analyse current changes on the basis of case studies, however is also worthwhile to detect future issues, to understand the interactions among stakeholders in implementing planning policies and to make use of project feedback. The questions concerning water management concern the integrated management of water and aquatic environments on the river-basin scale. Intense debate continues on the selection and the operational relevance of the river-basin as a management unit (e.g. how should groundwater be managed ?) and on the effectiveness of integrated water-management policy.

What are the theoretical frameworks, the notions and concepts currently used to develop policies for territorialised management of water and aquatic environments ?

9It is necessary to study the interests in play, current limits, the various factors that must be surmounted. What does recent research have to say concerning the links between water, the environment and society, with of course particular emphasis placed on the spatial, geographic and territorial dimensions ? How is the notion of territory taken into account ? What are the contributions and the limits of the systemic approach ? What study is being put into the adaptation of "water territories" confronted with increasingly frequent incidents, risks and crisis situations, both temporary and "definitive" ? What are the findings of research on territorial resilience (Pigeon et al. 2018) ? What are the links between the systemic approach and political ecology, and more generally how are questions of power relations perceived (Molle, 2008 ; Linton, 2010 ; Linton and Budds, 2014 ; Blanchon, 2016) ? What is the current approach to research on the links between power, knowledge and social representations ? To what extent do the hydrosocial territories, defined by Boelens et al. (2016 : 2) as "the contested imaginary and socio-environmental materialization of a spatially bound multi-scalar network in which humans, water flows, ecological relations, hydraulic infrastructure, financial means, legal-administrative arrangements and cultural institutions and practices are interactively defined, aligned and mobilized through epistemological belief systems, political hierarchies and naturalizing discourses" (Boelens et al, 2016), reveal the diversity of territorial projects on water and the efforts to materialise them (Hommes and Boelens, 2017 ; Valadaud and Aubriot, 2019) ?

What methods, tools and data are mobilised and what are the results ?

10The objective of research in the human and social sciences is to reconsider the links between societies and natural environments, increasingly perceived as a single system, consisting of interactions and dynamic dependencies. Project feedback has shown that territorial policies must address societies and environments in an integrated manner. The available tools are becoming increasingly numerous, whether for identifying the functions of ecosystems or ecosystem services, or for implementing procedures enabling collaboration and participation (Fleury and Prévot-Julliard, 2012 ; Mathevet and Godet, 2015). An array of innovative approaches have been deployed throughout the territories in order to encourage the involvement of stakeholders and/or social acceptance of projects and developments. What are the results ? What assessments have been made ? What criteria are used for those assessments (indicators, etc.) ? Modelling tools can assist in preparing a dynamic and spatialised representation of those approaches. It will be necessary to discuss the issues in terms of the concepts and methods used for those tools, as well as their status in discussions, their level of performance and their degree of acceptance/use by the various stakeholders in the field of water governance. What lessons can be derived from the research concerning regulatory instruments ? And what lessons concerning economic incentives ?

11The objective of this issue of the journal is to measure the noticeable effervescence in the human and social sciences and its scientific content concerning these questions, but also to understand the increasing multi-disciplinarity with other scientific fields and the contributions of the interdisciplinary synergies now unfolding. We anticipate articles presenting the diversity of social issues surrounding water and putting into perspective the bio-physical issues.

Instructions and deadlines

12This proposal is made as a follow-up to the "Fourth doctoral meetings of the social sciences addressing water", organised by the ENS (École normale supérieure) in Lyon in September 2019 :​. Contributions from doctoral students and young researchers are solicited, but also those from older members of the scientific community and from diverse disciplines.

13The authors may indicate their interest to the editors of the journal issue, Anne Rivière-Honegger, UMR 5600 EVS CNRS – ENS Lyon, and Stéphane Ghiotti, UMR ART’DEV CNRS - University of Montpellier 3, by sending a one-page abstract by 30 April 2021 at the latest. The authors will receive a reply by mid-May 2021. The final drafts of the articles must be submitted by 10 September 2021 at the latest.

14The proposal for the article must be written in French or English, in a Word file, Times New Roman font, include a title and an abstract of 3 000 to 5 000 signs maximum presenting the topic, the theoretical framework, the field(s) of study underpinning the article, a short bibliography and three to five key words.

15The article must respect the style guide and rules of the journal : (​​geocarrefour/​1017). The article itself may be written in French or English. The optimum size is approximately 40 000 signs, spaces included. All articles received will by assessed in a double-blind procedure by the reading committee. Authors will receive notification of the decision by the committee, with instructions for corrections, in October 2021.

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