Managing our water: Examples from the 2019 Dorset field trip
By Jaswanth Dadi, Kate Cullen, Kavita Upadhyay, WSPM ’19-’20
The sky was overcast and raindrops, emboldened by fierce winds, dashed against our faces. For the twenty-five new students from Oxford University’s MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) 2019-20 cohort, October 3, the first of the three-day induction field trip to Dorset was just as forecasted – cold and rainy. We were in Dorset to learn about what lay beneath the earth—chalk and water. The field trip was also an introduction to the many ways in which people – particularly in Dorset – view water and its uses.
First, we stopped at Wessex Water’s Groundwater Pumping Station at Friar Waddon. The pumping station made thunderous noises as boreholes that were dug deep into the earth sucked up the water resting in the underground chalk. The machines grunted and groaned as the water gushed to the surface to be cleaned and piped out to surrounding towns in Dorset. Wessex Water is a water supply and sewerage services company operational across southwest England. A quick look at the website flashes the words “value for money,” “investment,” “fair return”.[i] Through Wessex Waters’ lens, as a utility company, water is a commodity.
Standing in front of the tree, Professor David Bradley, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment (OUCE), spoke of the Well’s history. “You see, water is more than just a commodity,” he said, and our ears perked up. Suddenly, the narrative had shifted from water being perceived as a commodity to water being “more” than “just” that.
In Dorset, we were introduced to watercress, an aquatic plant used in salads and soups, the production of which is closely associated with the chalk streams central to Dorset. Dr Jocelyne Hughes, the WSPM Course Director, briefed us on how watercress was once harvested in winter by “traditional growers”. There are no traditional growers of watercress left in Dorset. Now, driven by the market, the plant is produced in Dorset mainly in the summer and imported from Spain, Portugal and Florida, USA, for the winter market. The commercial production is more water intensive than traditional methods, which creates significant strain of the unique chalk waters in the area. In Dorset, tradition has clearly been dumped for commerce.
From holy water and cultural traditions to ecological services and dependable utility services, our trip to Dorset illuminated the depth and breadth of how our society views and manages water. In the process, we found ourselves entangled in the perennial debate of whether water should be viewed as a commodity. If so, then to what extent? Also, how does the placing of water as a commodity or “more than” a commodity translate into water management? There were no easy answers.
[i] Wessex Water. “About Us: Our Purpose and Values.” Available at: https://www.wessexwater.co.uk/corporate/the-company/about-us/our-purpose-and-values