Mary Murphy & Elsa Lee

Connecting Water to Global Citizenship via Education for Sustainable Development (CW2GC) was an ESRC
funded research project at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge that investigated the impact on young people’s learning through participation in community-based water regeneration projects. Its central aim was to explore what young people learn about themselves as active global citizens when they participate in education for sustainable development in the context of waterway regeneration in their own communities.

There were five participating case studies: three in South Africa and two in England. Youth (defined in South Africa as up to 35 years old) were the main respondents in our research. All those who were interviewed were working on community-based water regeneration projects, and all were committed to environmental action and education.

We started in Kwa Zulu Natal, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, and worked with one case, that included multiple organisations who were working on the Umgeni and Duzi rivers. In Cape Town, in the Western Cape province, we worked with two organisations, one with a broad environmental education mandate. And another on a 9km urban river that has a 30-year organisational history. We collected approximately 50 hours of transcribed data from thirty individuals. We used prompt questions to ignite discussion in walk and talks along river bodies where individuals were working; and we were able to observe some of the participants at work on their projects.

Initially our data gathering took place in-person but during the height of the pandemic we had to work online.  By its very nature, a pandemic illuminates the trans local connections of our daily lives, and this was noted by our participants. In returning to talk to our interviewees via online applications, it was clear that this global phenomenon had influenced their thinking about their global positioning. However, whilst it had heightened their sensibility of being globally connected, for many it did not change their ambivalence towards being  defined as global citizens. 

Our research showed clear evidence that the term ‘global citizenship’ (GC) does not feature in how young people see themselves. For example, young people state:
“That [GC] is for rich people.”
“I can’t travel so I can never be a global citizen.”
“It’s like the same when people talk about the First World and Third World. In the first you’re a global citizen.”

Our ethnographically informed comparative data provides a ground-up critique that exposes what we consider a neoliberal ontological frame of ‘global citizenship’.  Like other researchers we found the sense of being part of a world beyond individual cultural contexts to be common across our cases but that the notion of ‘global citizenship’ was only appropriate to describe this sense for a few individuals among all five case studies.

Our project draws on the field of hydro-sociology which encompasses research that tries to show how human and water systems are linked. There is consensus within and beyond the field of hydro-sociology that human activities are rivalling geologic scale forces. Because of these impacts researchers, such as Thorsten el al (2010) argue that we “need profound changes to the science because hydrologic and human systems are now intrinsically coupled”. As human impact on water systems intensifies, socio-hydrology’s significance as a field of research is likely to increase.

One of the questions we asked our respondents was why is water so important? There was an overwhelming listing of positive emotive attributes associated with water that went beyond survival and need. Words that were repeated in both South Africa and England included ‘calm’, ‘peace’, ‘joy’, ‘happiness’. For some water had a spiritual significance that helped ‘connect to ancestors’. The majority considered water impossible to ‘stay away from’. One individual said she would literally feel lost without it. These associations with water are not surprising from this cohort given their work focus, but what is interesting is how deeply connected they felt to water in a way that transcended other environmental connections.

For example, in answer to the question whether the connection they felt with water was the same as the connection they felt with trees the answer was a resounding no.  Although articulating that distinction is still difficult, the identification with water as both a source of stability and peace, reinforces the need for community-based water regeneration work to happen. 

Look out for some resources for teachers and students designed from our project here:

Mary Murphy was the project researcher on CW2GC and has worked for over twenty-five years in the field of environmental education, particularly focused on South Africa.  Mary is a Fellow and Director of Studies at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, and is an independent consultant on Environmental Education. 

Elsa Lee was the project leader for CW2GC, is an NAEE trustee, and a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, and a Bye-Fellow at Homerton College.

This article was first published in Spring 2022 in Vol 129 of the NAEE journal which had a particular focus on freshwater. Environmental Education journal is available free to NAEE members.

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