How co-creation with local communities can drive change

Indian cities are rapidly expanding, resulting in an impact on water demand. This is only going to get worse, with India’s urban population expected to nearly double by 2050.

Climate change, pollution and contamination have also increased the strain on water resources. The delicately balanced water cycle is being disrupted as global temperatures rise. Accelerated evaporation of surface water increases precipitation, resulting in unpredictable rain and waterlogging (urban floods).

In 2019, the NITI Aayog think-tank estimated that 600 million Indians faced “high to extreme water stress”, impeding sustainable socio-economic development, and warned 21 major cities, including New Delhi (capital state).

Water scarcity in Indian cities’ informal settlements (which rely heavily on surface and groundwater for domestic needs) is a recognised climate-induced stressor.

Co-creating solutions

So how can higher education help? Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) believes that co-creation is the way forward.

To that end, it initiated a project titled “Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Planning water security in low-income urban neighbourhoods through co-creation” to understand the issue of water security through a lens of community experiences and knowledge and in order to demonstrate how community-based participatory methods can be very useful in systematising lived knowledge.

The co-creation project was implemented in two urban informal communities in Ghata Village (Haryana) and Gautampuri Resettlement Colony (Delhi).

Co-creation is a collaborative process of knowledge production that involves theoretically and professionally equipped research teams and community members who are living the experiences being researched. It aims to generate knowledge about local and social community realities through community members’ information and experiences.

For the ‘Breaking the Vicious Cycle’ project, we focused on SDG 6 – ensuring inclusive access to clean water and sanitation facilities – and the lack of availability and poor quality of water as well as water hazards like flooding that urban poor communities face in their everyday lives.

The co-creation process began with informal discussions with the community during a walk through the settlements. The introduction of researchers into the settlements was facilitated by the project’s partner, Shaheri Gharelu Kamgar Union (City Domestic Workers’ Union). This helped to gain the trust of the community, especially the women, many of whom work as domestic workers.

Focusing on inter-generational discussions brought a shared understanding of the historical trajectory of water availability in the settlements as well as daily usage, storage and collection patterns.

University partnership

Architecture and urban design masters students from the university partner, Sushant University, visited the settlements to map the blue and green spaces and to document housing quality, design and the materials used for construction.

Arts-based discussions with the high school students helped demystify what climate change is and how it can impact the availability and quality of water as well as the health effects.

In the discussion, the participants were asked to do a quick search on the internet and read about climate change. In groups, they were then asked to draw on chart paper what they had understood and present the information to the others.

Based on their understanding of climate change, they were asked to share their learning with at least two other community members – members of their family, peers in their school or community elders.

A resource mapping exercise with the community mapped the water geography of the village. As part of settlement mapping, the students were asked to draw an outline of the community they resided in.

They used locally available materials like chalk powder, stones, potted plants and bricks to show places of common interest in their community. Different colours helped to depict their village, like rows of houses, toilets, shops, gates and green spaces. Subsequently, the community plotted the water points in the village, marked in blue.

Communicating reality

The students chose to communicate the reality of their lives – how water is stored, the problems encountered during the monsoon, the problem of poor sanitation and drainage and how it affects water quality and their health – through the photo voice method.

They shot photos and made short videos on the theme of “Water in our Everyday Life”. They documented the travails of the women who collect water from common sources and carry it to their homes, the piling mounds of garbage that percolate into the ground and the sewage entering the pipelines that carry water to people’s homes, making the water supply unfit for human consumption.

A community-university interaction session titled “Community engagement: Tagging blue and green in the environment” was organised to facilitate the interaction of community members with university faculty and masters students from Sushant University.

This interaction triggered important discussions around key issues of co-creation: ways in which academic experts can demystify macro urban planning of settlements for the community and how the lived realities of communities can be incorporated into the planning solutions created by experts.

Our scientific research partner the National Institute for Research in Environmental Health supported this project on demystifying climate change. Open-source information, written in the local language, communicated the science of climate change, insights on the issue of water availability and quality, and its impact on health in an easy-to-understand graphic illustration format.

Demystifying climate change

Knowledge and innovation brokers like PRIA bring communities and experts together in a co-learning space.

By adopting a multi-knowledge perspective in generating new knowledge, students of architecture, urban design and planning, and environmental health researchers have demystified the meaning of climate hazards and climate change for communities, and by listening to community experiences, the experts broaden their understanding of the impact of climate change in everyday life.

This project taught us how the use of participatory, community-based methods to systematise and generate local knowledge, along with the demystification of the science of climate change in ways that link it to community knowledge, has begun the process of identifying community-based issues for future action research.

In the few weeks of the co-creation process we have seen an energy to take action being generated among the young people in the community and among the university students.

Specifically, engagement with marginalised young people has contributed to locally led climate adaptation actions. Adolescent girls have been at the forefront of learning ways in which they can band together to take action to conserve and preserve water.

The masters students from Sushant University, who were exposed for the first time to the realities of community life, saw first-hand how planning decisions taken in closed rooms affect the lives of the very people in whose name those decisions are taken. During the interaction with community youth, they formed a connection.

A common issue

Knowledge and innovation brokering has brought communities and experts together in a co-learning space – leading to a realisation by both the community and the experts that they can help each other to solve what appears to be a common issue.

There were challenges, however. One of the main challenges was time. Co-creation requires more intensive and lengthy engagement with communities. It requires a deeper understanding of the community and the experts as well as community perspectives and experiences.

Moreover, while climate change will affect everyone, it will disproportionately affect vulnerable communities and individuals living in informal urban communities such as Ghata Village in Haryana and Gautampuri in Delhi.

In a report released in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that vulnerability to climate change is “exacerbated by inequity and marginalisation linked to gender, ethnicity, low income or combinations thereof”.

The majority of climate change discussions take place among top-level decision-makers and experts. However, it is critical to involve the local communities who will be most affected. To develop sustainable practices, it is critical to document their experiences and local-led practices.

Nikita Rakhyani is lead – youth engagement at Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). Established in 1982, PRIA is a global centre for participatory research and training based in New Delhi. A video of the project has been created and the full research report can be found here.