“Si Dice Acqua”: Podcasting as a Research and Pedagogic Method to Nurture Relations on Water, Climate and the Commons

In this contribution to Bulletin 29, Emanuele Fantini explores the pedagogical uses of podcasting for climate education, drawing on successful campaigns by the Italian water movement.

Emanuele Fantini

Image by Mænsard Vokser (via Wikipedia).

In September 2019 I was watching the images of Fridays For Future’s climate strike in my home town, Turin (Italy). Around the same time I also took my 9- and 7-year-old daughters to their first climate marches in The Hague (The Netherlands), close to where we live. Looking at this new generation of climate activists, I realised that most of those youths were still in primary school – or even kindergarten – when another relevant mobilisation took place in Italy: the mobilisation against the privatisation of water services led by the Italian water movement. This has been one of the most relevant political mobilisations in Italy over the last 20 years. 

The Italian water movement and the commons

That movement reached its peak and most iconic victory in June 2011, when they won a national referendum against the privatisation of water services, in the name of water as commons. To many, that victory looked rather unexpected. In the twenty-four referendums held in Italy since 1997 the required quorum of 50%+1 of the voters had not been attained. Political parties did not actively promote the referendum, and joined the campaign only in the very last days for opportunistic reasons. Similarly, mainstream media neglected or explicitly silenced public discussion of the referendum’s topics. Nevertheless, the turnout reached 55% of the voters with an overwhelming majority (95%) of yes to the two referendum’s questions: the first asked to abolish the obligation for local authorities to contract out the local public services to companies (public, private or mixed); the second asked to abolish the 7% profit rate that was included in the water services tariff. Combined together, these two questions, according to the proponents of the referendum, would have put a halt to the privatisation and corporatization of water services in Italy.

The success of the 2011 referendum inspired other political and social movements that wanted to emulate the success of the water movement. Traditional struggles, for labour or public education, began to be framed as struggles for the commons. Everything became a commons: libraries, the internet, soil, you name it. Some were discussing the opportunity of creating a “commons party” to compete in national and local elections. Several municipalities introduced the post of “councillors for the commons”. Theatres and other buildings were occupied and transformed into commons. Articles and books on the commons flourished in cultural and academic debates. There were of course many different understandings of the very notion of the commons: one of the most original, that became popular in the aftermath of the referendum, considered the commons as way of governing and managing resources alternative to the logics of both the neoliberal market and the top-down state.[1]

Podcast as a research method during lockdown

Ten years later, observing the campaigns of contemporary climate movements, I was thinking that the experience of the water movement may be inspiring, particularly because they managed to build a vast coalition of groups and organisations, ranging from Catholic parishes to radical left-wing activists of what used to be called the No-Global movement. Therefore, in 2020, during the lockdown, I decided to go back to a previous piece of research we did on the Italian water movement right after the referendum.[2] This new research asked two questions: where have all the commons that mushroomed after the water referendum gone ten years later? And what can we learn from the experience of the water movement to address the Corona and Climate crisis?

I contacted the key informants – activists, journalists, representatives of local governments, colleagues who were also part of the movement – and through them I also met new ones, and I recorded online semi-structured interviews. I decided to make a podcast, which I used both as a research and communication tool. Why? First, because I had already done one, on the Nile river, and it was a lot of fun. Second, because during the lockdown this seemed to me an effective medium to conduct and disseminate research.[3] The results of this research have been published in the podcast “Si dice acqua” (translation: It’s called water) that recalls one of the mottos of the movement, “It is written water, it is read democracy”. What did I learn from this research? And, more importantly, what might the climate movement learn from the Italian water movement? These are a few of the lessons that the activists shared in the different episodes of the podcast:

1. Start with culture and education. The victory of the referendum of 2011 was made possible through a capillary activity of education and cultural sensitisation that started ten years earlier, at the beginning of the water movement in Italy, with the idea of promoting a new culture about water, through photo exhibitions, activities with schools, and artistic collaborations. Such grassroot and often unnoticed activities strengthened a broader understanding of water as a fundamental human right and commons in the Italian public opinion. 

2. Use an accessible and inclusive language. In order to speak to and build a vast and plural coalition, several left-wing activists reflected on how they learned to avoid the ideological jargon they used to adopt in previous struggles. Similarly, engaged scholars had to abandon academic or disciplinary jargon to contribute to the mobilisation with their technical knowledge. 

3. Adopt a radical message. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the vast coalition in support of the referendum was not cemented through a watered-down message resulting from a compromise between the different worldviews present in the movement. On the contrary, it rallied behind a bold and radical message: water is a commons, it is not for sale and should not be commodified. 

4. Connect local and global scales. The water movement managed to conduct and win local battles about local water services and resources in Italy. At the same time, it was able to connect those battles to the global movement advocating for the right to water and water as commons in international fora like UN Conferences or the World Water Forum and, through this movement, join local struggles like those of indigenous movements in Latin American countries like Bolivia or Argentina. This allowed people both to feel part of a global movement and see the practical effects of that movement at home, in their local territory.

5. Ally with local governments. Several of these victories were achieved through an alliance between social movements and local governments. The latter are often more advanced and progressive than the national governments, particularly on issues like water or climate change, whose problems, impacts or consequences manifest mostly at a local level.

Podcasting in education 

I would like to conclude by sharing what I learnt unexpectedly, in terms of the process of podcasting as a research method and how I am now applying that in education.

Our institute offers Master and PhD programmes for what we call mid-career water professionals. These are people with previous working experience in public administration, private sectors, NGOs, in African, Asian and Latin American countries coming to the Netherlands to get exposed to what is often called the “Dutch water knowledge”. Most of these students have a technical background – engineering or hydrology – and they wish to learn more about the governance and management dimensions of water. In two of my courses I asked them to work in groups and to make a podcast as their final assignment, to practice some of the competences on communication and interdisciplinarity that are central to education for sustainable development. What I am trying to develop is a podcast pedagogy that revolves around voice. A modest and pragmatic project, to reflect on how I as a teacher can contribute to addressing the climate crisis.

The first element is listening to the voice of your interlocutor. I have learnt that interviewing someone for a podcast is a very effective way to learn and practice active listening. First of all, interviewing someone for a podcast implies a recognition of their knowledge and authority: your interlocutor deserves to be publicly listened to. Second, as host you learn to ask better questions, to assess when to remain silent or when to ask a follow-up question. Third, you have to paraphrase and summarise for your audience. Active listening is crucial for water professionals and by doing the podcast I hope that my students can learn how to better listen to local farmers, water users, or children, indeed any person they aspire to serve.

The second element is about editing, or listening to your own voice as author. Editing is a very delicate and sensitive political act. You are, quite literally, adding or removing voice. The author should be accountable for that, for instance by signposting and summarising for the audience. Listening to your voice offers also the opportunity for reflecting on your own practice. And reflexivity is key to educating water professionals such as hydrologists or engineers that are able to critically assess the social and political implications of technology and infrastructures.

The third element is about sharing the podcast, or listening to the voice of your audience. Podcast is an intimate, one-to-one medium that requires an active engagement and a relatively long time commitment in terms of attention by the listener – especially if compared with scrolling through posts on social media. How do you reward such engagement? Podcasting requires thinking about your audience: How can you reach them? How can you collect their feedback and use it to improve your work? Reflecting on these questions, the students learn and practice how to build and nurture relations through their communication.

Active listening when interviewing; reflexivity when editing the podcast; caring for relations when sharing it with your audience. These three elements of a podcast pedagogy are particularly relevant in education for sustainability on topics like water or climate change. Podcasting is a medium that allows to effectively nurture relations in research and education by creating spaces for dialogic conversation. This property seems coherent with the lessons learned by the Italian water movement: the need to connect people, problems, institutions, and scales by adopting a creative, radical and simple communication style. Similarly, a podcast pedagogy can inform and inspire our education activities to nurture critical and creative minds to address the climate crisis.


[1] Chiara Carrozza and Emanuele Fantini, “The Italian water movement and the politics of the commons,” Water Alternatives 9, no. 1 (2016): 99–119.

[2] Chiara Carrozza and Emanuele Fantini, Si scrive acqua… Attori, pratiche e discorsi nel movimento italiano per l’acqua bene commune (Torino 2013: Accademia University Press).

[3] For more on the podcast as research method see Emanuele Fantini, “Ascolto, montaggio, condivisione: il podcast come metodo di ricerca e relazione,” in: Massimo De Marchi, Silvia Piovan & Salvatore Pappalardo (eds.) Atti del XXXIII Congresso Geografico Italiano, Vol 5. pp. 422-427.