Mobility Grant of Ms Amber Abrams


Start date: 20 April, 2019 End date: 31 December, 2020 Project type: Mobility Grant project Project code: 18-MG03-AU Countries: South Africa Thematic areas: Water management and sanitation, Lead institution: Aarhus University (AU), Denmark Partner institutions: University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa Project coordinator: Nick Shepherd Total grant: 130,995 DKK

Project summary

The Heritage and the Anthropocene (HATA) project was conceived largely in response to the Cape Town water crisis. Pressing issues HATA will research include: people’s relationships to place and history when the environment no longer reliably provides the most basic needs of life; and the role(s) social science might play in helping to understand and ameliorate the ongoing crisis. While Day Zero has (for now) been averted, many daunting challenges remain. Climatic trends point to a hotter, drier southwestern Cape, while the human population is likely to grow (Masante et al., 2018). Moreover, the crisis highlighted deep racial and class inequalities so that while some wealthy residents paid to have boreholes drilled on their land, many living in informal settlements had simply to wait and see if communal taps ran dry (Sieff, 2018).

Creating better, more equitable water management systems, especially in contexts of extreme inequality, is often not just a question of building more infrastructure, diversifying supply and so on. It requires the active engagement of communities affected by water management decisions and processes (e.g. Balanyá et al., 2005). This is recognized in South Africa’s National Water Resources Strategy, point 3.4.5: “ ... for effective and integrated management of water resources, top-down consultation should be replaced by citizens’ participation.” (South Africa. Department for Water and Environmental Affairs, 2013, p.15).

In alignment with this perspective, the University of Cape Town (UCT) recently (January 2017) established the Future Water Institute (FWI). Practical in outlook, the FWI promotes interdisciplinary research towards “management of water that is technically sound, socio-culturally acceptable and sustainable and that maximises public understanding of water scarcity” (Future Water Institute, n.d.).

As Postdoctoral Fellow at the FWI, Dr. Amber Abrams has taken a lead role in developing projects which draw on innovative social research methods to generate public engagements and data vital to the FWI’s vision. With clear synergies with our research interests at HATA, we propose to invite Dr. Abrams to visit us at Aarhus University (AU) for a period of three months with a view toward longer term institutional collaboration.

For this visit, Dr. Abram’s research would focus on collaborating with myself and with Martin Høybye, currently pursuing his doctoral research as part of HATA. She would also collaborate with other scholars focused on water research at AU, and with the research grouping on Uses of the Past and the Centre for Environmental Humanities. Like Abrams, Høybye has an interest in using participatory, arts-based research methods to facilitate 1) the translation of technical scientific terminology into forms that more diverse publics can understand, and 2) the articulation of ideas and bodily experiences of and relationships with water. Abrams and Høybye would use such methodologies to raise awareness of clean water as a resource, and to engage people’s ongoing concerns around pesticides’ impacts on drinking water supplies in Denmark. This collaboration would offer Abrams and Høybye rich opportunities for knowledge sharing as well as a comparative case study for their respective projects in Cape Town. Abrams would share her work with the School of Culture and Society, AU, in at least one departmental seminar and would deliver at least one guest lecture on the Masters in Sustainable Heritage Management course. At least one joint publication would derive from this collaboration. Not only would this visit foster an ongoing research collaboration between South African and Danish institutions, it aligns particularly well with the call’s theme of water management in South Africa - specifically the call’s concern with social dimensions, behavioural challenges, and constitutional rights to water and sanitation.


Project Completion Report:

One publication currently under review with the journal Environmental Humanities:
Cohen, Høybye and Abrams. (Under review). Experimenting with water-focused participatory research methods: towards new forms of question asking in a time of socio-ecological upheaval.

One full-colour, small and short form pamphlet describing the Aarhus floating seminar. The idea of this was to be able to easily, in an interesting, engaging form, share our ideas and experiences, inviting further collaborations both within and outside academia. This has been made freely available at one or two key meeting places on AU Campus, an Aarhus public meeting place, and also shared with colleagues and others both in Denmark and abroad. An online version is available at

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