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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 10 Mar 2020

Submitted as: research article | 10 Mar 2020

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal HESS.

Unravelling intractable water conflicts: the entanglement of science and politics in decision-making on a large hydraulic infrastructure project

Jonatan Godinez-Madrigal1,2, Nora Van Cauwenbergh1, and Pieter van der Zaag1,2 Jonatan Godinez-Madrigal et al.
  • 1Department of Land and Water Management, IHE Delft, Delft, The Netherlands
  • 2Water Management Department, TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands

Abstract. Global trends suggest that cities around the world are increasingly depleting available water resources. A common strategy is to opt for supply augmentation infrastructure. However, this response can be a financial and social burden for many cities, because they entail developing expensive infrastructure and can trigger social conflicts. Science is often expected to play a key role in informing policymakers and social actors to clarify controversies surrounding policy responses to water scarcity. However, managing conflicts is a socio-political process, and the use of models may have the effect of de-politicizing such processes; conveying the idea that optimal solutions can be objectively identified despite the many perspectives and interests at play. This raises the question whether science can depoliticize water conflicts, or whether instead conflicts politicize science-policy processes? We use the Zapotillo dam and water transfer project in Mexico to analyze the roles of science-policy processes in water conflicts. The Zapotillo project aims at augmenting urban water supply to Guadalajara and León, two large cities in Western Mexico, but a social and legal conflict has stalled the project until today. To analyze the conflict and how stakeholders make sense of it, we interviewed the most relevant actors and studied negotiations between different interest groups through participant observation. To examine the role of science-policy processes in the conflict, we mobilized concepts of epistemic uncertainty and ambiguity and analyzed the design and use of water resources models produced by key actors aiming to resolve the conflict. While the use of models is a proven method to construct future scenarios and test different strategies, the parameterization of scenarios and their results depend on the knowledge and/or interests of actors who own the model. We found that in the Zapotillo case, scenarios reflected the interests and strategies of actors on one side of the conflict, resulting in increased distrust by the opposing actors. We conclude that the dilemma of achieving urban water security through investing in either large infrastructure (supply augmentation) or alternative strategies (demand-side management), cannot be resolved if some key interested parties have not been involved in the scientific processes framing the problem and solution space.

Jonatan Godinez-Madrigal et al.

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Jonatan Godinez-Madrigal et al.

Jonatan Godinez-Madrigal et al.


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Latest update: 03 Apr 2020
Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Our research studies how knowledge is produced, how is used and what was its effect in decreasing uncertainties and ambiguity on a long water conflict involving the development of large infrastructure. We interviewed key actors in the conflict and replicated the results of water resources models developed to solve the conflict. We found that knowledge produced in isolation have no positive effect in transforming the conflict; instead, its potential could be enhanced if produced collaboratively.
Our research studies how knowledge is produced, how is used and what was its effect in...