Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Linda Whiteford, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

E. Christian Wells, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rebecca Zarger, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Marilyn Brandt, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Maya Trotz, Ph.D.


Caribbean, wastewater, political ecology, building back better, resiliency


Increasingly communities are impacted by slow-onset and sudden hazards. With reports of disasters affecting millions of people and with severe impacts on lives and livelihoods, there is a focus on creating cities that make human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Within this focus are the mandates that safe drinking water, energy and wastewater sanitation are the right of all people living on the planet. This research addresses water and energy insecurity, highlights the gaps in community level perceptions of water and energy, and global-local dynamics that impact disaster vulnerability through a political-ecology lens.

This work examines how disaster resilience and vulnerability factor into sustainable development and coastal resource use at multiple scales, local and global. As part of this multi-scale, political ecology approach I investigate differing knowledge scales, authoritative and local, that influence the sustainable wastewater development and disaster mitigation policies on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Of concern is who contributes to the policy process and who is not being considered, and how it influences local perceptions regarding (waste) water, energy and disaster development.

My research goal is to investigate the perceptions of AK and LK holders, to elicit information that interprets the political ecology of the water-energy nexus. Within this goal are two areas: one involving local knowledge regarding the water-energy nexus and disaster, and the other concerned with authoritative knowledge and collaborative resource management. This research employed ethnographic methods that rely on a survey instrument to elicit information about environmental, water, energy and disaster risk perceptions. Semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and a mapping exercise were used to learn the participant’s conceptions of their local environment, water, energy, wastewater, and disaster vulnerability.

The concept of Building Back Better (BBB) is a phrase seen often in news reports and policy recommendations (UNISDR 2017) in the post-disaster environment. It usually refers to the period after a disaster in which there is reflection on how to reduce disaster vulnerability and fortify against the next catastrophic event. The sense is that a community can make changes during the rebuilding period that will enable it to withstand the destructive impacts of future disasters. Wisner (2017) and others (Di Giovanni 2017; Khasalamwa 2009) offer a critical perspective of adopting a BBB approach to disaster recovery and vulnerability, and argue that a broader perspective is required that recognizes the complexities of pre-disaster societies.

Results reveal that the post-disaster BBB phase presents an opportunity to critically evaluate (waste) water, energy, and disaster reduction policies and practices for potential failures. Divergent knowledges based on cultural models that keep segments of a community apart needs a platform for integration. In the long history of anthropological scholarship, bridging gaps has been a common theme. As cultural translators, we take as our responsibility being cultural brokers whose job it is to make the strange less so, facilitating collaboration and participation. The question is how to create the opportunity for alliance. I suggest that St. Thomas is the ideal place to explore what can be possible if (waste) water and energy policy development, and sustainable disaster planning, embraces multivocality. The outcome could be building a community that has a stronger capacity to recovery from disaster before the next storm.