The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (AUSCCER) is a teaching and research group focusing on cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. AUSCCER’s expertise and research is wide-ranging. Over the next few months we’ll introduce some of our academics and PhD candidates to give greater insight into AUSCCER’s work.
Carrie Wilkinson began her PhD with AUSCCER at the start of 2015. Here she answers questions about her research.
You’re in the early stages of your PhD candidature. How would you describe the focus of your research?
My current doctoral research focuses on the agency, assemblages and materiality of water and water tanks in everyday life. Specifically, I am interested in learning from the everyday water experiences and practices of households which subsist on non-mains water sources – such as bore water, rainwater, river water and/or dam water – in peri-urban bushfire prone landscapes.
Tank water households are largely self-sufficient in terms of gathering, storing, conserving, recycling and disposing of water for household consumption and I am interested in what emerges through residents’ narratives of life with water tanks and tank water, and life without mains water supplies. By taking seriously the vitality of water and water tanks I want to better understand the vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities of tank-water households in a changing climate, where events such as drought and bushfire are expected to increase pressure on water supplies in future.
You grew up in regional Australia. What are your experiences with water tanks and hazardous events?
My interest in the intersections of water tanks, everyday water practices and climate change as a potential PhD project was first sparked through research I assisted with in 2013, where I was part of a team that interviewed households in the Blue Mountains that were threatened by the 2013 Red October bushfires. One of the things I found most striking about these households and communities was that they were in areas not serviced by mains water and so residents relied solely on independent water supplies, such as rainwater, for both everyday life and bushfire preparedness. Stories about water abundance and scarcity in residents’ survival related decisions were a striking feature of their accounts of their recent bushfire experience. While some houses were physically well prepared for the bushfire, with ample and multiple water supplies stored in water tanks on site, others were not, citing the drought conditions in the months preceding the bushfire as impacting on stored water volumes. This suggested that the decision to use or conserve water in the months preceding the bushfire had influenced the vulnerability and resilience of households at the time the fire threat became apparent.
This experience caused me to reflect upon the role of water and water tanks in my own upbringing. Whilst my family and I are very fortunate to have never been directly threatened by a bushfire, decades of living with tank water in a bushfire prone area have taught us the imperative of remaining conscious about how we conserve, store, use and recycle water in our home. I grew up just outside of Batemans Bay on the New South Wales South Coast on a 5 acre bushland block. There is no town water supply in our area so all of our water (including our drinking water) is rainwater harvested from the roof and stored in four above ground water tanks. We were living on a finite amount of tank water at the height of the Millennium Drought so my childhood was full of 2 minute showers, bucketfuls of bathwater on the garden, and conversations about when the next decent rainfall would be. Even after the drought broke and the tanks were filled with rain, the imperative of using water in a conscious and sustainable way has stayed with me – having moved to Wollongong to attend university I have lived with mains water access for 5 years now but the sight of someone hosing down their driveways or leaving the tap running still sets my teeth on edge!
I hope to make space for conversations about life with water tanks as vibrant, material objects full of agency and life at the intersection of everyday life and living with natural hazards.
What made you decide to go down the path of human geography?
I’m not really sure. I fell into it more than anything. I started out in Land and Heritage Management but wasn’t inspired by geology. I then changed to Biology but the chemistry subjects were like reading another language! I couldn’t settle down so there then followed short stints with History, Law, and Public Health. It wasn’t until late into my undergrad degree that I realised that the subjects that I really enjoyed and went well in were in the Human Geography major. I’ve always been interested in the cultural and social aspects of environmental issues, and all of the subjects I took across these different disciplines dabbled with these issues in some way. But it wasn’t until I completed Nick Gill and Leah Gibb’s captivating third year subject Environmental and Heritage Management that it all clicked, and I realised that I didn’t need to be an expert in geology, biochemistry or conservation biology in order to better understand and contribute to our knowledge of society and the environment.
I am fascinated by people’s interactions with nature and human geography is just this exciting, interdisciplinary, conglomeration of ideas, subjects and methodologies with which I can answer almost any question I have about living in this crazy changing world of ours! I love how human geography always challenges me to rethink the world and my place in it.
What do you think may be one of your biggest hurdles during your PhD journey?
I think the biggest hurdle for me will be coming to grips with the literature. Water security is such a huge issue in Australia, as elsewhere, and an enormous amount of research has been done across a range of disciplines on water, water tanks, and water practices. It is hard to not be disheartened by the sheer amount of literature which already exists. There is just so much to get my head around that it can be overwhelming at times.
What are you looking forward to the most during your PhD journey?
All of it, seriously, I am looking forward to the reading, the writing, the fieldwork, the analysis, all of it. I love a challenge (and the literature review is certainly providing me with one now!) so I am very excited to see where this journey takes me. Bring it on!
Carrie’s publications and research interests can be found on her UOW profile page. You can follow Carrie on twitter @CarrieW2536