Conversational narrative, 4 videos to capture people’s perception about water use in Cornwall

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In this blog post we want to share some of our first stories about drought and water scarcity. The four videos below were made following our trip to Cornwall in June 2015, where we held a workshop for members of the community living near the River Fowey (the catchment in which we are piloting our narrative methods in DRY). Although these stories don’t follow the established format of a digital story, they do provide some initial insights into people’s perceptions about water scarcity and motivation for water saving in the South West of the UK. They also reflect the more flexible approach sometimes needed to record stories in different settings, for example, outside of a ‘workshop’ when it is necessary to go where people already are. It is likely this approach that will reach ‘voices’ that don’t usually enter the drought risk management conversations. We collected some of our stories at the Cornwall Royal Agricultural Show where we visited many different organisations and individuals with local knowledge and a stake in water management.

The videos are a presentation of some of our early conversations in the catchment. They are based on responses to some basic, open-ended questions we asked people. It is noteworthy how similar questions generated disparate reactions. The different environments in which the stories were recorded also played a role in determining the answers people gave. While we were editing the videos, following our trip, and sharing versions with team members, the format of the stories became an issue that stimulated a deeper reflection on the multiple narrative approaches that we are going to apply during our research and a consequent consideration of the outcomes of different processes. The videos are the result of a less structured approach used to engage people around drought and water scarcity in informal conversational narratives outside of the workshop setting. Our discussions started from something specific that matters to their personal lives – both from a professional or a personal point of view.

We met Martyn Alvey, Community Flood Resilience Manager, at the Royal Cornwall Show while he was at the Cornwall Council stand to explain the role of the Cornwall Community Flood Forum. We met Graham Tobias in his pub, The Royal Oak in Losthwithiel, and asked him about the water butts he has in the beer garden. We invited Laura Denning (a local artist) to join us at Lostwithiel Community Centre to explore water as a subject of her artistic production. We had clear in mind that we weren’t able to produce with any ‘traditional’ digital stories with these people, but we agreed to capture their thoughts in a video where we edited their speech with some images to emphasize the flow of our informal conversation.

People’s perception about flood and drought

A conversation with Martyn Alvey – Cornwall Community Flood Forum

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Martyn Alvey

After a quick presentation about the Cornwall Community Flood Forum and its role to act as a bridge between the authorities and communities that are at risk of flooding, we started our travel back in time to collect Martyn’s memories of the drought of 1976.

He told us that drought in Cornwall is a subject that has almost gone away in people’s minds, mostly because he doesn’t remember any other hosepipe ban in that area since 1976. Hosepipe bans seems to be the thing that triggers the thought that water is scarce in people’s minds.

Regarding people’s perceptions about drought, Martyn underlined a generational factor where older people would probably receive better than young people messages about water saving, because they have memories of previous drought events. He also told us that people’s perception of climate change is that it is now actually a lot wetter and that there is more rain; what people generally don’t realize is that there isn’t more rain in Cornwall, but it is actually happening in a different way, with prolonged periods of very heavy rainfall and prolonged periods of very low rainfall.

His personal memories of 1976 – he was 16 years old – are related to the fact that Cornwall in that time was not a green county as it usually is and there were big signs everywhere, especially on the A30 to remind tourists to save water.

Martyn argued that nowadays more people are on water meters, so they have more awareness about water costs, but the flip-side of that is a common attitude to say “I’m paying for what I use, so I’m going to use as much as I want”.

Water cost is also crucial in the conversation with Graham Tobias, who moved to Lostwithiel in August 2014 to buy a local traditional pub and run his new business there.


Talking about water saving at The Royal Oak

Lostwithiel, June 2015

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water butts

We were attracted to spend some time at The Royal Oak by the tasty food of course, but also by 3 water butts standing at the main entrance of this lovely pub.

Graham’s main concern about water saving is water cost, especially now that he is living in Cornwall where residents pay more for their water than other regions due to the cost of keeping the coastline clean. So instead of using water through the meters for watering the plants and the garden, he bought the water butts to store the rain water: ‘a small absolutely worthwhile investment’ (around £100 for three). And also a good example for people who come to his pub, who can’t elude seeing those water butts proudly standing at the main entrance.

Talking about water saving, Laura’s angle is completely different and her approach is clearly more oriented to a reflection on global responsibility. We also had more time to spend with Laura than Graham (who had to get back behind the bar!), which meant we were able to be more in-depth in our conversation.


Drought awareness, scientists and media

by Laura Denning

Lostwithiel, June 2015

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climate change

Laura shared with us some quite provocative considerations of agriculture as “an enemy of the people and an enemy of the planet” in its current form. Interestingly, she believes that something like a drought might perhaps trigger a change in that particular industry.

Reflecting on people’s perception about climate change, she gives the media a crucial role in securing our relationship with science, and comments on how the language of scientists can seem to be impenetrable.

We had shared with Laura a video made together with Dr James Blake, one of the hydrologists from CEH who is part of our project team, to explain some scientific pillars around drought and water scarcity. It’s really interesting that Laura in her conversation with us referred to that video to propose a potential “solution” to harness water during the winter and re-use it when we experience water scarcity.


Laura’s memories about the drought of 1976

Lostwithiel, June 2015

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Laura Denning

Reflecting on people’s perception of drought in the UK, as Martyn did, Laura suggests a generational angle, but quite contrasting. In fact, as a child of the 70s, she grew up in “the instant age”, the age of instant coffee, instant photos, instant heating, and she believes that people of that generation have to wean themselves off that lifestyle, whereas at least some members of younger generations already know that they have to live differently if they want to inherit the planet that they want to inherit. In Laura’s view, the perception is changing and the next generations are more informed and therefore they offer some hope.

In all these videos it is evident how the flow of the conversational narrative emphasises different ways of prioritising personal memories or more general reflections, starting from the same main issues: people’s perception about drought and water scarcity, personal memories of previous drought events, the connection between drought and climate change, and the legacy for the future generations.

As an informal and non-linear one-to-one approach, the conversational narrative reveals to be more flexible than a structured interview and gave us a chance to make self-reflective media or digital (conversational and not conventional) stories that we are publishing here to stimulate new narratives and as an additional reflection on our research methodology.


by Dr Antonia Liguori – Research Assistant in Applied Digital Storytelling at Loughborough University

Dr Liz Roberts – Research Associate on the DRY Project at University of the West of England, Bristol

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