Delft, the Netherlands, 26 Apr 2022

A dam that causes tension: Jonatan Godinez Madrigal earns PhD for research on El Zapotillo conflict

Following PhD research at IHE Delft, Mr. Jonatan Godinez Madrigal of Mexico successfully defended his PhD thesis and was awarded with a Doctoral degree on 26 April 2022. Professor Pieter van der Zaag is his promotor and Dr. Nora van Cauwenbergh his co-promotor. Dr. Godinez Madrigal shared a few insights as he embarks on a new chapter of his life.

My thesis in a nutshell

I began studying the conflict over El Zapotillo project in 2015. The project involved a dam that has been a source of tension in the Mexican state of Jalisco for more than 16 years. The dam, located in the Verde River basin, was envisioned to solve water supply problems in two major cities, but it also threatened to flood three villages, putting their residents’ homes and ancestral lands at risk. The imposition of this dam resulted in a conflict, long considered intractable, but despite its relevance, it had not been studied comprehensively nor interdisciplinarily. I chose this topic because I wanted my PhD to not only contribute to science, but also to also have social impact by contributing to transform the conflict through action research. 

By working together with the communities and proposing workable alternative solutions for both the water supply of the cities and the security of the villages, we facilitated the parties involved break a stalemate. We contributed to the understanding of water conflicts, and we also co-produced water knowledge that is relevant and impactful. We did this by opening up our models and technical knowledge and actively making them understandable for a wider audience. This could be a basis to build on to resolve other conflicts related to dams, water access and poor water quality. People need to understand what is the problem, and from there co-develop different alternatives to choose from. In reality, the decision space is often restricted to a one and only solution given by experts and the government; that needs to change. My thesis demonstrates that through transdisciplinary action research, scientific knowledge can become actionable and relevant – it can address power asymmetries and contribute to sound alternative water management solutions that are more equitable and sustainable.  

Memorable moments

The most memorable moment during my PhD research was when my supervisors and I became part of the scientific team that supported the three dam-affected communities of Temacapulin, Acasico and Palmarejo, in negotiating with the Mexican government, leading to a historic solution to the water conflict. Our experience and skills enabled us to advise the grassroots movement concerning the technical issues of proposed solutions to the conflict. To make a social impact through your scientific research is extremely exceptional and was very rewarding. I will always treasure this moment of seeing my knowledge put into action.

Challenges during my PhD studies

My biggest challenge was balancing between the need to plan my research, and the need to be flexible and let my research be guided by the case itself. Case studies involving people’s agency and interaction are uncertain and full of surprises. When highly technical knowledge became socially and politically relevant in my case study, I needed to adapt my approach and adopt methods and tools that were new to me, such as water resources modelling. As a social scientist, it was a challenge to learn these technical tools, but it eventually paid off by contributing to science and to the transformation of the conflict.

The influence of my PhD research

I hope that my research inspires other (technical) scientists to connect with grassroots movements of water defenders and caretakers around the world, so that they, too, can produce transdisciplinary knowledge that is actionable and relevant to promote socio-technical change in water systems.

What’s next?

I would like to stay in academia to continue researching and teaching. I also would like to participate in transdisciplinary research projects that involve local actors and movements to co-produce water knowledge that is crucial to promote change in water systems.

Looking back, if I could advise myself at the start of my PhD, I would say:

Be patient, but persistent and hopeful, and let go of things outside your control. Ask for help when needed, do not be tough on yourself, forgive your own pitfalls and errors (but learn from them), and rely on your dear friends and family to never doubt your self-worth. Last but not least, be and remain true to yourself above all, protect your heart and spirit. Keep doing things with passion.

Research summary

Thesis title: Paradigm Lost - On the value of lost causes in transforming cities and water systems’ development pathways

This thesis is about a number of rural communities resisting flooding and eradication of their ancestry, history and culture by opposing the implementation and imposition of a large dam in rural Mexico that would supply water to two large cities. The importance of this case lies in the unlikely odds not only of resisting a State-led, large-scale infrastructure project for almost two decades, but to actually build up a grassroots movement that grew in extent, scope and scale to claim for a comprehensive water management transformation in Mexico. The scientific analysis of the conflict and this grassroots movement, informally dubbed ‘Temaca’, contributed to several scientific disciplines including water conflicts, science-policy processes and transdisciplinary action research. The analysis of the case study shows how politics influences science by determining a limited decision space that can only superficially address the serious water problems of large cities. As a result, cities continue a development pathway that may deepen their water problems in the long term. Therefore, water conflicts and grassroots movements play a crucial role in opening the decision space. This thesis demonstrates that through transdisciplinary action research scientific knowledge can become actionable and relevant; addressing power asymmetries and finding sound alternative water management solutions that are more equitable and sustainable.

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