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Title: Geographies of risk, uncertainty and ambiguity : a participatory action research project in catchment management
Author: Walker, Timothy William
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2016
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This PhD thesis was developed in the context of contemporary challenges within water policy and governance; specifically the issue of managing diffuse pollution risk in fresh water catchments. As highlighted in the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) diffuse pollution poses a major risk in many European catchments where the sustainability of the ecosystems and water uses is compromised by intensive agriculture. The challenge for catchment management is the tricky nature of diffuse pollution. It is what you would term a ‘wicked problem’ or ‘Post Normal Science’ wherein the facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decision-making is urgent (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993; Patterson et al., 2013). In response to the WFD the UK Government have proposed the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) which represents a paradigmatic shift in approaches to water management; from a ‘command and control’ approach (i.e. the historic practice of direct regulation) to a participatory governance approach (i.e. devolution of power and involvement local stakeholders) (Dryzek, 2005; Müller-Grabherr et al., 2014). The project had two aims. The practical aim was to identify the drivers and barriers to delivering the CaBA. The academic aim was to employ the relational concept of ambiguity to explore why and how catchment stakeholders understand, frame and respond to diffuse pollution risk differently. In order to address these aims Timothy embedded himself in Loe Pool Forum ( for four years. Loe Pool Forum (LPF) are a voluntary catchment partnership, based in West Cornwall, working to address the risk of diffuse pollution through taking a CaBA at the WFD waterbody scale. The methodology was directed by Participatory Action Research (PAR) and underpinned by ethnography. PAR enabled Timothy to work collaboratively to engender positive change within LPF while ethnography generated data upon how partnership and participatory working happens in practice. New insights into the geographies of risk stemmed from the application of ambiguity as the conceptual lever. Ambiguity is a dimension of uncertainty which accounts for the relational properties of risk. Ambiguity is defined as the simultaneous presence of multiple frames of reference about a certain phenomenon (Brugnach et al., 2007). Timothy examined ambiguity from three different directions. Firstly, where the ambiguities are in catchment management and how local partnerships negotiate them. Secondly, how risk frames are produced by both water scientists and the agricultural community. Thirdly, what the drivers and barriers are to delivering the CaBA. By thinking through risk relationally this thesis provides new insights into the practice of catchment management and the socio-cultural geographies around the water-environment.
Supervisor: Leyshon, Catherine Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: risk ; uncertainty ; ambiguity ; participatory action research ; diffuse pollution ; catchment management