Heather O'Leary

Lecturer - Sociocultural Anthropology

Heather O’Leary is an interdisciplinary environmental anthropologist with deep commitment to teaching students about power disparities, natural resource distribution, and intersectionality.

O’Leary’s Fulbright and Wenner-Gren funded research explores the cultural dimensions of the technologies of legitimacy in India’s water allocation through engaged ethnography—specifically by waiting with women on the roadside for water deliveries, fostering discussion in local community groups, and participating in the everyday family lives of the urban poor. Her fieldwork traces infrastructural and hydrosocial disparities in two water-poor “slum” communities through a close study of how emerging formal and informal systems affect residents’ allocation of water and perception of water justice.  Negotiating competing values of water shaped not only the way they saw water and the dynamically changing urban waterscape, but the way they saw themselves.  Delhi’s in-migrant population grows by 1,000 every day; the water habits of this population, though largely dismissed, are extremely germane to the dynamics of urban life and also have broader equity implications, as urban sustainability practices impact increasing climate change hazards and policies which have the potential to compound the problems of vulnerable populations worldwide.

O’Leary’s postdoctoral research, built on this research with macro-level interdisciplinary research in Global Water Security.  Her research contributed to the OECD/Global Water Partnership report Securing Water, Sustaining Growth, creating timelines which focused on multi-scalar water development chronologies, including investments into infrastructure, institutions and information systems to prevent risk and maximize opportunities.  The 32 case studies of aquifers, transboundary river basins, and cities were presented in a report at the 2015 World Water Forum as models for heads of state to plan future water security strategies.

O’Leary is committed to incorporating students in her ongoing research initiatives and to connecting them with her international networks of collaborative scholars.  Students are the future leaders who will inherit the world’s increasingly challenging global problems—including, among others, the socio-political structures that perpetuate the disparity of natural resource allocation.