Pig in Kiribati - UNSW Global Water Institute

In profile: Hélène A Le Deunff, PhD Candidate

For Hélène A Le Deunff, interactions between humans, water and animals are a vital consideration in effective water management.

While working for several years in international development projects and programs, Hélène encountered several situations where relations with domestic animals or wildlife were an integral part of people’s wellbeing, dignity and identity—yet these interactions were seldom considered in water management decisions.

This led Hélène to her PhD at UNSW, where she is looking at how non-human others, such as animals, can play a more visible part in water decisions.

Despite the importance of human-water-animal relations, very few water management interventions put animals at the heart of their approach

Hélène A Le Deunff, PhD Candidate

“Despite the importance of human-water-animal relations, very few water management interventions put animals at the heart of their approach,” said Hélène. 

“I wanted to explore ways to do water politics that would take animal concerns as seriously as they are for people and animals.”

Domestic animals are an increasing part of the urban water landscape in the developing world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more than half of the world's extremely poor depend on livestock for their livelihoods, income, food and wellbeing. Furthermore, urban livestock ownership is increasing in low income countries due to urbanisation and growing demand for animal-derived proteins. For Hélène, this makes a more holistic approach all the more urgent.

Hélène has been using the capital of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati as a case study for her research. Last month, she undertook some field work in-country, completing a multi-species analysis of this water community by collecting data from local people—and pigs—about their water interactions. 

“I defined pigs as part of social relations with water, considering their biological needs, along with the characteristics of available water sources and the local peoples' world views and traditions,” said Hélène.

In Kiribati, where many own pigs in urban areas, water scarcity issues are compounded by animal waste polluting groundwater supplies. Furthermore, the pigs themselves are competing for water Helene A Le Deunff - PhD Student - UNSW Global Water Instituteresources for their own consumption. Despite these factors, pigs’ water needs are not factored into water planning. Campaigns to end open defecation and subsequently improve water quality in Kiribati have only addressed the issue of human waste and not extended to animals. 

Hélène’s approach acknowledges that water issues are not exclusively human, and defines ‘participation’ in water management far more broadly than just humans participating in meetings—extending the definition to any material engagements with and through water that happen in everyday transactions.

“This definition of participation acknowledges that human attachments to water and other non-human beings constitute who we are and how we feel, think and act in the world,” said Hélène.
The case of Kiribati will help Hélène to determine new ideas and methods to design and evaluate water policy using inter-species considerations.

This unique, interdisciplinary research receives joint support from two UNSW Schools: The School of Environmental Humanities and Languages at UNSW Sydney and the School of Physical, Environmental & Mathematical Sciences at UNSW Canberra.

“I chose UNSW after taking the UNSW Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ‘Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature’, which convinced me that the emerging interdisciplinary research field of Environmental Humanities was the right framework for my research,” said Hélène.

“I find the creative and experimental nature of Environmental Humanities particularly useful for exploring the complex challenges of water governance.”

After completing her PhD, Hélène plans to seek opportunities working for international agencies supporting water governance programs, and believes her research will enable her to provide sound policy advice through considering the unique perspectives of human-animal relationships.

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