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Sustainable water futures: Dr Susan Germein reflects on her AIRS Fellowship

Dr Susan Germein, an early career researcher from Western Sydney University, completed her PhD in Education in 2022 with a research project in rural Uttarakhand. This year, she had the opportunity to revisit India to pursue her research project, ‘Sustainable water futures thinking skills: A collaborative and intercultural inquiry’, as part of the Australia India Research Students (AIRS) Fellowship program. Her Fellowship project focused on situating Education for Sustainability (EfS) principles within the context of groundwater sustainability in Rajasthan, and as a transformative educational approach in an intercultural space. Here, she reflects on her research exchange, delving into the importance of conducting ethical and respectful research in another country.

After successfully completing your PhD in India, what motivated your decision to return through the AIRS Fellowship program? The Fellowship was an opportunity to build on both my thesis work and my research practice in India. My Fellowship focused on exploring Education for Sustainability (EfS) practices in rural Rajasthan. I was hosted by Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology (MPUAT), an Udaipur university that has an existing water sustainability collaboration with Western Sydney University through the MARVI project. This initiative aims to enhance the security of groundwater supplies and create better livelihood opportunities for rural communities in India. I shared EfS perspectives and practices from the Australian context through a number of graduate workshops, evaluating their applicability within an Indian setting. With this work I hope to foster more collaboration between Australia and India in the field of EfS, with an immediate focus on supporting groundwater sustainability initiatives.

AIRS Fellow Dr Susan Germein was welcomed by Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology’s VC Dr. Ajit Kumar Karnatak, and Dean of the College of Technology and Engineering, Dr P.K. Singh, during World Water Day (Vishva Jal Divas).
AIRS Fellow Dr Susan Germein was welcomed by Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology’s VC Dr. Ajit Kumar Karnatak, and Dean of the College of Technology and Engineering, Dr P.K. Singh, during World Water Day (Vishva Jal Divas).

Can you tell me more about Education for Sustainability? Education for Sustainability (EfS) gained currency during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. It is an approach to learning that develops the necessary knowledge, skills, values and perspectives for individuals to become change agents towards sustainability in community, business, educational or other institutional settings. It recognises the intricate interconnections and ecological nature of the challenges we encounter on a global scale.

I feel passionate about cultivating these thinking and practice skills, such as critical thinking, systems thinking, futures thinking, and participation and engagement, that are necessary for our planet’s future.

What is your experience of conducting research in India? My time in Udaipur shone a light on some key aspects of doing ethical research in an intercultural context: in other words, doing respectful research in someone else’s country or community. First was the researcher mindset, with the importance of maintaining an open, curious, attentive, and humble approach. Going into another culture, especially from the privileged position of western hegemony, could easily seduce one into a power-laden position as a ‘knower’. It’s important to relinquish this position and engage in research ‘with’ rather than research ‘on’. There’s also the art of being a good visitor, which involves being polite but also sharing something of yourself. As I come from a farming family in South Australia, the farmers I interviewed wanted to know all about what we grew, how many acres we farmed and where we got the water from. Comparing our farming practices created a nice sense of shared purpose. Lastly, in the spirit of EfS, it was important to remain aware of the interconnected and ecological nature of the topic of ‘water’, encompassing people, nature, society, economy, and spirituality.

Dr Germein interviewing farmers about their challenges, needs and aspirations relating to groundwater challenges.
Dr Germein interviewing farmers about their challenges, needs and aspirations relating to groundwater challenges.

 

A practical point I’d make about doing research in another country is that often things don’t turn out as you expect, especially in an intercultural setting. You have to go with the flow based on what the community gives you.

This was the case with my experience. I had to quickly adjust the expectations I had for the research as some of my plans proved unrealistic, either logistically or culturally. Still, this is OK, because whatever you are presented with provides a great learning and research opportunity! 

How did the Fellowship add to your knowledge and cultural understanding of India? I have spent a lot of time in India for research, work, and personal interests, so there wasn’t any culture shock for me in general. However, I had never engaged with an Indian university before so that was its own cultural experience. It was interesting to experience different ways of operating, and I loved all the cups of chai that accompanied most meetings! I was provided accommodation at the University Guest House and was also lucky enough to be ‘adopted’ by a local family. It was wonderful to spend time with them on the weekends and enjoy home-cooked food. The close contact with Rajasthani farmers was also a great privilege – they were wonderful!

Dr Germein spending time with local farmers in Rajasthan
Dr Germein spending time with local farmers in Rajasthan

What are your future research plans? Through interviewing a broad variety of stakeholders, including key people at MPUAT and NGOs as well as the farmers, I was able to gain a deeper awareness of the dimensions and priorities of the local groundwater landscape, and gain insights into how EfS can be part of the solution. I have a number of publications in the pipeline to analyse and reflect on this information, including a conference presentation.

Excitingly, Western Sydney University recently secured an Unnati Research Collaboration Grant to further enhance the impact of the MARVI project. I am looking forward to collaborating with my colleagues both in Australia and India on this project.

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