Leila Harris


Research Interests

Development Policies
Drinking Water
Environmental justice
equity and social justice
Ethics and Fundamental Issues of Law and Justice
Fresh Water
Gender Relationship
gender and social difference
International development
participatory resource management
Resources Management
Social Contract and Social Justice
Social and Cultural Factors of Environmental Protection
South Africa
Turkey and Middle East
water governance
water politics

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters


Research Methodology

qualitative approaches
discourse and narrative analysis
textual analysis
policy analysis
gender and feminist approaches
collaborative, participatory and community based research
Focus Groups


Master's students
Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows

Please see www.edges.ubc.ca and www.watergoveranance.ca for ongoing research efforts. There are currently funded research opportunities with the decolonizingwater.ca project on Indigenous water governance issues (in Canada and elsewhere) and there may be upcoming support for analysis of non material dimensions of household water insecurity.

I support public scholarship, e.g. through the Public Scholars Initiative, and am available to supervise students and Postdocs interested in collaborating with external partners as part of their research.
I support experiential learning experiences, such as internships and work placements, for my graduate students and Postdocs.
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).

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These videos contain some general advice from faculty across UBC on finding and reaching out to a potential thesis supervisor.

Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Hard to believe I am slowly inching closer to the end of a PhD. From Day 1, @leilaharris has believed in me and supported me. So has @hishamzerriffi. Thank you for being a #GreatSupervisor!


Hats off to @leilaharris for her constant energy and invaluable mentorship all these years! #GreatSupervisor #UBC @IRES_UBC @EDGES_ubc


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Advancing livelihood water security in the rural global south (2021)

No abstract available.

Adaptation to glacio-hydrological change in high mountains (2020)

No abstract available.

Waiting on the law to change? A critical geographic analysis of water law reform in British Columbia (2020)

No abstract available.

Tracing and situating resilience across scales (2018)

No abstract available.

Water Privatization in Metro Manila: Assessing the State of Equitable Water Provision (2016)

This dissertation extensively examines the Metro Manila water privatization, one of the largest and longest-running privatization programs in the world for a water utility. Regular performance assessments show significantly improved privatized water services since 1997, citing increased area coverage, with 24-hour supply of high pressure, good quality water. The dissertation takes performance assessment a step further by determining whether or not such services have been experienced by all consumers, particularly the urban poor. Scenarios where urban poor communities have not been able to benefit from improved water provision are identified through extensive analysis that foregrounds equity as a key parameter worthy of careful evaluation. Evidence-based equity metrics show that access and affordability remain critical issues for impoverished communities, despite considerable improvements shown by traditional metrics. Connected urban poor households enjoy improved water services, but affordability is a major concern requiring a review of existing water tariff structures. With limited supply options and low bargaining power, unconnected urban poor households in southern peri-urban areas pay high prices for monthly water consumption that is below the minimum World Health Organization standard, posing health risks to individuals and communities alike. Informal settlements (squatter communities) in networked areas that are unable to get direct water service connections because of property rights issues, highly depend on community-based operators (supplied by the private concessionaires) to provide the last phase of water delivery. This research offers key insights to better ensure that privatization programs benefit all households, regardless of socio-economic status. For Metro Manila, policies that may address access and affordability concerns include water tariff reform, conversion guidelines for community water systems, service coverage formula revision, multilateral grants for new service connections of poor households, temporary distribution facilities for informal settlements, as well as new water sources and distribution systems for southern peri-urban communities. While performance assessments based on efficiency metrics offer a sense of the privatization program’s achievements, assessments based on equity metrics presented in this dissertation provide a fuller appreciation of the degree to which all consumers benefit from improved water services.

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Gender and small-scale fisheries in the Central Philippines (2014)

This dissertation provides new evidence for why women should be included in small-scale fisheries assessments. Women are commonly overlooked in fisheries science and management because they are assumed not to fish, or to fish very little. My research focuses on community-based managed fisheries in the Central Philippines. I begin with a literature review of women’s fishing around the world, revealing that it is common, diverse, and dynamic. Women fishers also often focus on species and habitats different from those in men’s fishing. Notably, however, the review also identified a considerable data gap in quantitative assessments of women’s fishing.I designed my case study specifically to quantify women’s contributions to the total community catch and effort. I found that women – who totaled 42% of all fishers – generated about one quarter of the total fishing effort and of the catch biomass. Explicit consideration of women’s fishing cast a spotlight on gleaning, an overlooked fishing method in which animals are collected in intertidal habitats. Almost all the women and half of the men gleaned. I found that gleaning primarily targeted sessile invertebrates, and was an important source of food, particularly when other fishing was not available. Marine management that affects gleaners – such as no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) placed in intertidal areas – needs to consider distinct ecological and social features of gleaning. On that basis, I used a gender lens to examine community-based management in the form of no-take MPAs. In this cultural context resource management is a male sphere, both in perception and in practice. Women were less likely to feel that the MPA had a positive effect on their fishing, with MPAs mostly identified as a management measure for finfish. Women were also less likely to participate actively in MPA management. In summary, my focus on women should prompt reexamination of how fishing is defined, who counts, and who is counted. Integration of women’s issues into fisheries management requires attention to gleaning, and exploration of alternative management methods. To overlook women, however, creates substantial underestimation of fishing labour and catch – with consequent worsening of our prospects for fisheries management globally.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Green infrastructure planning in Vancouver: addressing environmental justice with participatory resident workshops (2022)

No abstract available.

Transitioning towards water supply diversification: possibilities for groundwater in Cape Town, South Africa (2017)

Due in part to negative climate change impacts on water availability, and the fact that urban populations across the globe are growing, cities are experiencing increasing stress on their water resources. Therefore, new options for urban water demand and supply management are being considered to address this concern. In the case of Cape Town, South Africa, overall water demand is increasing despite a successful water demand management campaign, while water supplies are dwindling. These conditions are aggravated by a recent severe drought that began in 2015. Transitions towards additional bulk water supplies are therefore needed, and the City has addressed this through plans for future water supply diversification in the form of large-scale groundwater development. However, given the historical focus on surface water infrastructure in Cape Town, there are significant obstacles in adding new sources, such as aquifers, into the supply chain. This Masters’ of Science thesis will present the findings of a research study that was aimed at analyzing the motivations, barriers and possibilities for groundwater governance in Cape Town, with particular attention to the expert perspective. Findings are based on three months of fieldwork in Cape Town, where data was collected through in-depth interviews with water experts and professionals involved in the Cape Town water sector, as well as field observations and water policy and document analysis. Chapter 2 of this work outlines the motivations and barriers for groundwater integration. This chapter emphasizes the benefits of groundwater for water security and resilience, while maintaining that fragmented roles and responsibilities to do with groundwater governance present significant challenges. Chapter 3 explores an existing groundwater scheme in Cape Town and presents three lessons learned for future groundwater policy development. Lessons learned include aquifer recharge zone protection, sufficient field operator training and consistent institutional support for groundwater knowledge leaders. The main goal of this thesis is to provide insight into the motivations and challenges associated with water supply diversification, and sustainable groundwater use in particular. These insights are relevant for broader discussions of water governance transitions in light of changing water demand and supply dynamics, as well as hydrological regime changes.

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All of the water that is in our reserves and that is in our territory is ours: Colonial and Indigenous water governance in unceded Indigenous territories in British Columbia (2015)

With increasing legal recognition of Aboriginal rights and title, growing calls for collaborative water governance arrangements with First Nations, and approval of British Columbia’s new Water Sustainability Act (2014), shifts are unfolding in water governance in BC which have some significant implications for First Nations. First Nations across British Columbia have also clearly articulated that water and water governance are priority areas of concern. Within this context, this thesis examines the historic and present roles and experiences of First Nations in colonial water governance in British Columbia, based primarily on a case study conducted with the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.In Chapter 2, I examine the historical formation of reserves and the colonial water allocation system, exploring how the demarcation of reserve boundaries and water licenses established some fundamental barriers for First Nations in water access and governance that persist today. Chapter 3 provides an overview of concerns about colonial water governance that were identified by Lower Similkameen Indian Band interviewees and others, followed by a critical discussion of how a collaborative watershed planning model could address, or further entrench, existing governance challenges.This thesis provides a timely and relevant commentary on the contested realities of First Nations’ engagement in colonial water governance in the province. Insights suggest that while there is growing recognition that First Nations have a legitimate place at the center of water governance in British Columbia, the collaborative watershed planning approach adopted in the Water Sustainability Act falls well short of adopting the necessary steps towards full Indigenous water governance or water co-governance. Existing colonial water governance challenges and failures are not likely to be addressed by a collaborative watershed planning approach. Overall, this thesis suggests that the transition to more effective and just water governance in British Columbia includes observation of Aboriginal rights and title, commitment to relationship and trust building, and capacity development for colonial and First Nations governments.

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Environmental Citizenship in Chilean School Textbooks: A Case Study on Environmental Citizenship Education in Chilean Basic-Education Textbooks of 2012 (2015)

The role of education in the formation of citizens, particularly from the perspective of sustainable development, has strongly influenced the Chilean environmental-education curriculum since Chile’s educational reform of the 1990s. The school textbooks provided by the Chilean Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) are an important resource for teachers and students in Chilean public and private-subsidized education. This study explores how Chilean school textbooks for basic-education (elementary years) appear to convey relationships between citizens and the environment. Apart from the Chilean context, similar studies have focused on identifying conceptions and social representations of the environment and the human-environment relationship among students, teachers, curricula, and textbooks. In this study, I specifically explore school textbooks and focus the inquiry on three aspects that appear to link environmental citizenship, sustainability, and education: awareness, values, and civic action. For the purpose of this interpretive study, I conducted a qualitative content analysis to examine the text and images in school textbooks for grades one, four, and eight for two compulsory subjects in Chile: Natural Science and History, Geography, and Social Science. These textbooks seem to represent civic-environmental relationships generally at local and national scales. The textbooks also appear to encourage environmental care mainly as an individual or personal duty and scientific attitudes, skills, and knowledge focusing mostly on material and practical aspects of the human-environmental system. The results of this study intend to advance our knowledge and understanding of how Chilean textbooks for the public and private-subsidized educational systems represent citizen-environment relationships. These representations appear to disconnect humans from dimensions that regard the environment symbolically and promote collective deliberation and participation. This study may guide interested ministries of education and publishers in the production of future school textbooks that may better foster sustainable and participative relationships between citizens and the environment.

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Water Variability, Livelihoods, and Adaptation: A Case Study From the Angat River Basin (Philippines) (2015)

In the Global South, agrarian households face stressors to smallholder agriculture – a primary livelihood for many. One stressor increasingly documented is the re-allocation of surface irrigation for domestic and industrial uses. This is concerning because the timely, adequate, and predictable provision of irrigation was designed to enhance crop production and protect smallholders from hydro-climatic variation. Chapter 2 of this thesis examines a case from the Angat River Basin (Philippines) where a systematic set of rules have restructured reservoir governance to privilege domestic water use in Metro Manila over irrigation for regional rice-farming. A review of multiple secondary datasets and an analysis of household surveys (n = 124) and interviews (n = 70) in a rice-farming municipality (Bustos) reveals that restructured reservoir governance arrangements now interact with existing effects of climatic variation to undermine the intended benefits of irrigation. Based on the nature of irrigation service change, Chapter 3 argues that on- and off-farm efficiency measures alone are insufficient to protect households from risks of irrigation insecurity. Moreover, access to water alternatives is limited and increasingly uncertain. This suggests complementary and alternative (CA) livelihood activities are increasingly important as risk mitigation measures given irrigation service change and broader social-ecological stressors. All too often however, standardized livelihood activities promoted by governments encounter resistance, rejection, or are rendered irrelevant. One reason why proposed activities fail is because they do not align or overlap with certain CA activities that households are able and willing to engage in (termed here as “decision spaces”). Chapter 3 provides an integrative framework that allows policy-makers to better understand how contextual factors – from land-use regulations to cultural aspirations – constrain or widen household “decision spaces.” The framework is applied to Bustos providing direction for adaptation policy to i) promote CA livelihood activities that are both relevant and palatable to households; and to ii) challenge certain constraints to enlarge the set of activities household could engage in. Overall, this thesis represents an analysis of irrigation re-allocation as one facet of social-ecological change in the Angat River Basin and provides measures for accommodating change effects through substantive recommendations for adaptation policy.

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Navigating water access and governance in Perturban Ashaiman, Ghana: A case study (2014)

Low-income, peri-urban residents of Greater Accra face disparities in water access, particularly given that piped water services provided by the formal municipal network are highly erratic and unreliable. Often, those underserved by the official provider are able to meet their daily water needs by sourcing water through alternative, or informal, means. Although it is often the case that informal water services pose important challenges for users, for instance in terms of price and quality, this research attempts to understand other dimensions of how populations are served when they are not adequately reached by formal networks. This research also explores the potential for participatory water governance, querying policy and scholarly literatures that advocate for a more inclusive water governance process on the grounds that it is key towards service extension and empowerment. This thesis is based on two months of fieldwork in Ashaiman, a rapidly growing settlement located on the outskirts of the capital region of Accra, Ghana. The overall objective of the thesis is twofold: (1) To examine the myriad of mediums and networks through which water is accessed, with particular attention to those that extend beyond the municipal water system, and (2) To assess how participation in water governance is experienced and expressed by the peri-urban poor, with the aim of considering possibilities for managing water concerns in this context. These themes are addressed respectively in the two substantive chapters of this thesis. Insights suggest that a diversity of strategies to obtain water is a key factor in allowing peri-urban dwellers to cope with water insecurities. In addition, mainstream approaches to participatory water governance may be at odds with local institutions operating within Ashaiman, which tend to be multi-purpose and adaptive, based on a wide-ranging goal of improving social welfare. Among other implications of these findings, it is concluded that an in-depth process of consultation with community members, organizations and private water vendors is imperative to promote collaborative governance of water and well-being, where members themselves define the scope of the mandate, and where the critical role of informal water networks is accounted for.

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Water access and governance among indigenous and migrant low income communities in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area (GAMA), Ghana (2014)

Access to potable water remains a key concern for most developing countries, especially across the sub-Saharan African sub-region. Although countries such as Ghana have already declared success in attaining its MDG target of halving its population without access to potable water ahead of the 2015 target date, there are disparities in water access across the country. This disparity is notable in growing urban areas such as Accra, the national capital, where access to potable water remains a daunting challenge especially for many neighborhoods located in low income enclaves of the city. Adopting a comparative approach, this research aims to elicit the everyday accessibility options and coping strategies of two low income neighborhoods; one indigenous (Ga Mashie) and one migrant (Madina), located in the metropolitan region of Accra. The study uses data from a two and half months of fieldwork conducted in both communities in Accra, Ghana. It includes a survey of 200 households in Ga Mashie and Madina, group discussions, and semi-structured interviews with local community leaders. Drawing on concepts of entitlement, social capital, vulnerability and water governance, the study analyzes the everyday lived experiences of water access in these communities. Results of the study show that while there are qualitative differences in water access between both communities, they both rely on informal water vendors for their water supply. Also, among the many social problems in both communities, water was considered to be among their biggest concerns. However, this notion held by the respondents in both communities was not shared by local public officials in Ga Mashie, where officials discounted the existence of a water problem. Moreover, in some notable ways, Madina appears to be more resilient in times of water shortages than Ga Mashie, contrary to what this study initially hypothesized. In conclusion, this study suggests that care must be taken in proposals for water governance reforms in particular settings since different localities likely call for different responses. For a sustainable governance outcome, there is the need to promote models that tend to account for the roles and needs of different social groups at the local level.

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Beyond the pipe: Participation and alternative water provision in underserved areas of Accra, Ghana (2013)

Drinking water remains inaccessible for approximately 783 million people globally – an increasing portion of whom now live in cities. The incapability of municipal provision systems (both public and private) to adequately supply urban citizens means that for many of them water access is negotiated every day in places nowhere near a tap. Instead, points of access are located beyond the pipe, along informal delivery lines. This thesis aims to evaluate the potential of two alternative modes of provision in urban Accra –participatory water governance offering new points of access in underserved communities and small-scale private service providers producing sachet water. Through an exploration of the flows of water as it leaves the municipal mains, this thesis offers a qualitative account of water access in underserved areas in Accra, Ghana. Specifically, Chapter 2 examines participatory water governance in the form of Local Water Boards established throughout the last decade in several neighbourhoods of Accra. Through a discussion of participation’s limits, the chapter argues that a narrow approach to participation, less attentive to other multi-scalar political and social processes at play, undermines the possibilities to improve water access and foster more inclusive water governance in Accra. Chapter 3 offers an analysis of small-scale private service providers looking at the case of Accra’s flourishing sachet water industry –sachets are 500 ml bags of water manufactured locally and distributed throughout the city. The chapter argues that the sachet industry redefines water production and alters its distribution in Accra in a way unaccounted for by the small-scale private service providers literature. The sachet water industry in Accra alters the physical flows of water as well as the power relation vis-à-vis municipal authorities and as such has significant implications for water governance. This thesis is based on qualitative fieldwork including semi-structured interviews, field and participant observations, water user surveys, and document analysis conducted throughout two field seasons in Accra, Ghana (June to August 2011 and June to September 2012).

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Lived notions of citizenship and the human right to water in Site C, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa (2013)

South Africa has been undergoing significant changes over the past three decades with the dismantlement of the apartheid state, followed by a series of socio-political and economic changes. The structural transformation of the new democratic South Africa has been accompanied by many progressive developments for which the country has been widely praised - but also critiqued. Major elements of this transformation have been improving service delivery for formerly marginalized populations and redressing structural historical inequalities. The main goal of this work is to investigate how these changes affect on-the-ground realities in areas of Cape Town, South Africa, by focusing on the micro level, namely on communities and individuals in marginalized urban areas. This manuscript-based thesis is founded on Master’s research conducted in 2012, with a follow up in 2013, in Site C, Khayelitsha, a partly informal township in Cape Town, South Africa. It investigates the conditions of water access in Site C, the different meanings people attach to water access as well as associated implications for experiences of the human right to water and citizenship more broadly. Chapter 2 analyzes the ways in which the post-apartheid state is encountered in Site C through access to services, and water in particular. It traces the significance of service delivery to previously marginalized populations, such as informal settlements and black townships, as foundational in defining the relationships these populations have with the post-apartheid state. This chapter concludes that these relationships vary significantly along the lines of formality, whereby the housing formalization process contributes to the marginalization of shack dwellers. Chapter 3 focuses more specifically on the human right to water, for which South Africa has been widely praised in both academic and policy realms. This chapter adopts a “lived notions of rights” conceptualization and draws attention to the material conditions as well as the emotive and discursive meanings of water access for residents of Site C. This thesis contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the everyday lived dimensions of relative marginalization, proceeding alongside the housing formalization process in Cape Town and South Africa as a whole.

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Citizenshit - the right to flush: sewage management and its meanings in Villa Lamadrid, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2012)

Urban life means your shit is not your problem. It is commonly felt that for urban residents the management of sewage should not be a personal responsibility; instead, disassociation from sewage, its production, presence, disposal, and management is central to participating in a full urban citizenship. Connection to centralized and water-borne sewerage infrastructure affords this luxury of ‘flushing and forgetting,’ not having to know about or have contact with shit after the toilet is flushed (Hawkins, 2006).This thesis is based on three months of fieldwork in Villa Lamadrid, a historically marginalized peri-urban neighborhood in Greater Buenos Aires. The neighborhood lacks connection to a centralized, water-borne sewerage system. During this period I spent considerable time in the neighborhood, engaging in participant observation, and conducted 36 semi-structured interviews with neighborhood residents.I examine how, in the absence of centralized sewerage connection that makes this sanitation imaginary possible, residents work to claim urban citizenship by employing narratives of disassociation from sewage in its visible forms throughout neighborhood. Notable among these is a racialization of shit and the practices that result in its presence in neighborhood streets and zanjas. In addition, as a part of my interviews I presented two sewage management systems appropriate to aspects of the neighborhood’s biophysical conditions, particularly its saturated groundwater table and vulnerability to flooding during storm events. Both of these systems were household level management systems, a common solution provided by development organizations to urban areas not connected to municipal sewerage service. Interviewees in Villa Lamadrid felt these decentralized sewage management options directly undermined the goal of participation in the urban sanitation imaginary, and their claims to full, rights-claiming citizenship by necessitating, and even relying upon, their personal engagement with the management of their own sewage.This research raises important questions regarding expectations of urban sanitation and the paradigms in which we frame sewage management, and, acknowledging the high failure rate of sanitation interventions in poor communities globally, questions of where we are to go from here, in a rapidly urbanizing world where infrastructure already lags behind ever growing demand.

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