Service Learning in Costa Rica

This past year I had the privilege of working with freshman from the College of Geosciences on a year-long service-learning experience that addressed water security and water provision from a global perspective.  In fall, these freshman met once a week to discuss global water challenges and to read a Doc Henley’s book Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World.   The book inspired students to engage in informed discussions about contemporary water challenges and the role of the geosciences.

Led by Judy Nunez, my partner in this endeavor, we traveled with 15 students to the Texas A&M Soltis Center in San Isidro, Costa Rica to spend a week in April learning about water governance hands on.  I joined them, after a very long 24 hours of travel from Fortaleza. We also were joined by a staff member from Wine to Water, the NGO started by Doc Henley, to accompany and guide students through the their volunteer program and lead evening discussions.

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We spent several days with the local ASADAS (Asociaciones Administradoras de. Sistemas de Acueductos y Alcantarillados Sanitarios). ASADAS are community-based water institutions responsible for domestic water provision in rural areas.  There are 1,400 ASADAS that provide about 24% of the country’s domestic water.  We followed the water, from the spring to the tap, and learned about very different models of working with water resources and the challenges of provision in rural communities in Central America. In addition, The students could not wait to give a helping hand and be of service to the ASADA.

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Texas A&M students working on projects for the local ASADA.

We also strengthened our individual and institutional relationships with the local ASADA. Texas A&M is part of this watershed, indeed, the nature reserve on the center’s property contributes greatly the source water protection and water quality for the downstream communities.  As such, we also need to support the democratic institutions that support the region’s well-being.  This is one way we can play a productive and supportive role, offer freshman a high-impact learning experience, and contribute to the water security of the local community.

We want to continue building on this experience and integrating research activities as well.  Our plan next year will follow the same model, but build in new books and perhaps include other activities that address water quality concerns downstream from the local pineapple plantations.  I would like to think about a theme for each year to advance the project. Perhaps this next year’s theme could be “Citizen Science and Service,” and reach out to the NGO Freshwater Watch.

A partnership between the College of Geosciences and the Water Security Initiative underwrote a large portion of the costs to support this trip.  Student only had purchase airfare, and for some, this was subsidized by other grants or awards.  Our next challenge is to identify ways to make this sustainable over the long term.

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Hiking to visit the community’ source water (April 2017).

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ASADA member instructing students on the day’s work plan (April 2017).

Water Security Challenges in Costa Rica?

Water security is not the first environmental challenge that comes to mind when one mentions Costa Rica.  Perhaps tropical deforestation or biodiversity loss probably come to mind before water resources.  The nation, as a whole, is water wealthy. The available water in Costa Rica is 2.8 × 104 m3/person-year while only 1.5 × 103 m3/year is used, allowing some growth in resource use.  Yet, a closer look and a few questions to government agencies, farmers, and local people, reveal how water security challenges have slowly moved to the center of debates and discussions on environmental management for this Central American country. That is, water security is more than simply water access.

There are several key challenges that commonly arise in my recent conversations:

  • Rise of hydroelectricity to achieve national carbon goals
  • Water-Food-Ecological Services conflicts in the Tempisque Watershed
  • Agro-industrial pollution of waterways
  • Water security for local communities in tourist areas of Guanacaste (Pacific Coast)
  • Transboundary conflict (Rio San Juan) and cooperation (Sixoala)
  • Overuse and agrochemical contamination of aquifers

And what looms over all of these is unknown impacts related to what Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien have called the “double exposure”:  the interactions between global environmental change and economic globalization.  In Costa Rica’s case, it is climate variability, increase demand for export crops, and the rise of Chinese FDI and investment in several key sectors, that further exacerbate the water challenges.

So, for the next few years, it looks like there will be plenty of opportunities for students to study water security and governance issues as part of a study abroad in Costa Rica.  I hope to have this ready for Summer 2018. 

img_1357View from TAMU Soltis Center, Costa Rica, “homebase” for study abroad, research activities and outreach.

img_1356Student groups make their mark on the walls, pillars, and soon, the ceilings of the dining hall at the Soltis Center.

 

Feel free to call me Dr.

Thank you, Dr. Biolock. A clear reminder that titles do matter.

Tenure, She Wrote

It happens so frequently, to me, to my friends and colleagues, and in professional settings no less. In asking about your work, they say, “Mrs. Biolock, can you explain your findings?” You find yourself wondering if it is necessary to correct them, to ask them to refer to you by your professional title: “Dr.” When deciding whether to halt the conversation, to introduce that awkward moment of correction, we are actually considering whether (as my mother would say) we are willing to ruin the party. Is your name, your title worthy of the tricky pause, the halted speech, and the stilted correction?

Whether someone refers to you as “Dr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”, and whether or not you correct them is in some small part about the politics of respectability. Not the typical respectability politics (à la Don Lemon ) that continues to haunt the Black community, but the…

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Water insecurity exacerbated as drought continues

Urban water insecurity increases as poor governance and water scarcity collide in small cities in the interior of Northeast Brazil.

See video.Waiting for water

 

Water Security Sessions in CLAG New Orleans

Leaving for New Orleans to attend the Conference of Latin American Geographers Conference early tomorrow morning.  I appreciate smaller conferences and hopes of less performance and more engagement.   The organizers have kept the conference to only three concurrent sessions, but I probably will miss some talks regardless of the careful planning.  Here are the two sessions on water and water security.  Very exciting group of scholars!

Thursday, 5 January — 1:00-2:40, Water Security in Latin America I (Ballroom)

  • Organizer: Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University) Chair: Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University)
  • J. Alejandro Artiga-Purcell (University of California, Santa Cruz). Under-Mining El Salvador’s Water Security: The co-production of gold mining and waterscape in El Salvador.
  • Emilie Schur (University of Arizona). Technofixes and Water Security in Vulnerable Mexican Border Communities: Assessing Puerto Palomas.
  • David Robles (Florida International University) and Elizabeth Anderson (Florida International University). Pastoralist Participation and Water Security in the Era of Water Scarcity: Comparing the Wayuu of northern Colombia and the Kuria of northern Tanzania.
  • Ashley Coles (Texas Christian University). Information and infrastructure: Overcoming the Challenges of Community-managed Water and Sanitation in Cali, Colombia.
  • Edson Vicente da Silva (Universidade Federal do Ceará), Francisco Otávio Landim Neto (Universidade Federal do Ceará), Juliana Felipe Farias (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte), José Manuel Mateo Rodriguez (Universidad de Havana), Adryane Gorayeb (Universidade Federal do Ceará). Geoecologia de los Paisajes y la Planificacón de Cuencas Hidrográficas en Ceará, Brasil

Thursday, 5 January — 3:00-4:40, Water Security in Latin America II (Ballroom)

  • Benjamin P. Warner (University of Massachusetts). Smallholder adaptation to drought in Costa Rica’s crony capitalist rice economy.
  • G. Thomas LaVanchy (University of Denver) and Sarah T. Romano (University of Northern Colorado). Challenges to water security along the “Emerald Coast”: A political ecology of local water governance in Nicaragua.
  • Paula Tomaz (Federal University of Ceara) and Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M University). Urban water insecurity in droughtaffected cities of Northeast Brazil.
  • Lindsay Sansom (Texas A&M University) and Kent Portney (Texas A&M University). U.S.-Mexico Water Cooperation and Conflict.

Water insecurity during drought

Calamitous drought in the Brazilian Sertão (Backlands) inspired songs, poetry, and oral traditions that infuse culture and society.  Migrants leaving the desiccated soil populate the regions cities, driving metropolitan populations since the 1970s.  Reading the stories is one thing.  Visiting the region, which faces a five-year drought, is an entirely different experience. Dried reservoirs are scattered across the landscape, with many others on the brink of collapse. acudes

Small and medium-sized cities struggle to find secure sources of water.  Currently organic pollution degrades water drawn from existing sources, which further reduces residents’ confidence in domestic water provision.  Drilling groundwater has exploded during the past two years, as a strategy to mitigate the lack of surface water.  Some cities have provided its urban population with well water, with some as desalinated, depending on local resources.

The micro-politics of water provision confirms the complex strategies between political leaders, technicians, and local communities.  Geologic, social different, and political variables determine location and technological investments in these small and medium-sized cities.

Public taps offer one mechanism for residents to access domestic water. Yet two-hour lines, however self-regulated by water users, do not preclude the informal privatization through water resale. Nor does public provision provide water users with adequate and safe containers to transport water to homes. Reused lubricant and agro-toxics containers, paint buckets, and old two-litre soda bottles are more common than the more expensive 20-litre water bottle.

Questions remain as to the quality and capacity of transportation, gender divisions, and impacts of this provisioning system on public health. But without a doubt, there is a daily, grinding struggle for water in towns and cities in Brazil’s Northeast.

Photos from the Field

Here are a few photos from my research trip to Ceará.  My time there quickly passed by as my colleagues scheduled many activities and meetings almost every day of the trip — including unsuccessful visits to register my visa! Leave that for October.  I forgot about the Brazilian bureaucracy — Brazil is not for beginners, but regardless, I am so happy to be back working there. 

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Typical reused container for water transport and storage.

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….And more containers (this was used for lubricants).

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Striking gender division of labor: Women would collect water in the early morning while men waited two hours during the afternoon to fill their containers. In another town, the lines were so long people would hire the local “papudhino” (drunk) to wait in line for them.

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In some places, others would bring between 10 and 30 containers to fill, and then resell at the periphery of the urban area.  This was not allowed officially, but it has lead to implied violence if someone were to stop it. 

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One small town in the northern region of Ceará. Rural residents would come to the town for well water (“agua doce”)

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Public taps for well water that was not processed by desalination.

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County-owned water tanker (“carro-pipa”) filling tank directly from the bare-bones water processing plant. He is on his eight trip to the rural areas to fill cisterns with water. In this town, no “carro-pipa” served the urban residents, only rural

Urban Water Insecurity During Drought

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Forquilha Reservoir at 4% capacity (August 2016)

Calamitous drought in the Brazilian Sertão (Backlands) inspired songs, poetry, and oral traditions that infuse culture and society.  Migrants leaving the desiccated soil populate the regions cities, driving metropolitan populations since the 1970s.  Reading the stories is one thing.  Visiting the region, which faces a five-year drought, is an entirely different experience. Dried reservoirs are scattered across the landscape, with many others on the brink of collapse.

Small and medium-sized cities struggle to find secure sources of water.  Currently organic pollution degrades water drawn from existing sources, which further reduces residents’ confidence in domestic water provision.  Drilling groundwater has exploded during the past two years, as a strategy to mitigate the lack of surface water.  Some cities provide urban populations with well water, and limited desalinated options, depending on local resources.  The micro-politics of water provision confirms the complex strategies among political leaders, technicians, and local communities.  Geologic, social differences, and political variables determine location and technological investments in smaller cities.

Public taps offer one mechanism for residents to access domestic water. Yet two-hour lines, however self-regulated by water users, do not preclude the informal privatization through water resale. Nor does public provision provide water users with adequate and safe containers to transport water to homes. Reused lubricant and agro-toxics containers, paint buckets, and old two-litre soda bottles are more common than the more expensive 20-litre water bottle. Questions remain as to the quality and capacity of transportation, gender divisions, and impacts of this provisioning system on public health. But without a doubt, there is a daily, grinding struggle for water in towns and cities in Brazil’s Northeast.

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Building Bridges in Fortaleza

Fortaleza, which is located on the Atlantic Coast, offers the opportunity to study water insecurity in Latin America. Unlike the mega-cities like Rio, Fortaleza and the smaller urban areas in the Northeast represent the everyday life far from the glow of Olympic glory or global Carnival. The residents, many of whom are immigrants or from immigrant families, escaping the parched interior, known as the Sertão.  The drought, rather than employment and opportunity, drives many to the city’s  bairros and favelas.  Poor public services and precarious infrastructure also accompany new forms social action and civic engagement in the most surprising places.


I met with students and colleagues at the Universidade Federal do Ceará on the first day, and since then we have been animated by the possibilities of working on different projects, including urban water provision and household water insecurity. My first goal is to begin the process of identifying communities — this can be tricky as the brute reality of Brazilian cities requires careful consideration of safety. But there are many opportunities and this trip is the first step to identify the case communities. I will have this completed during October’s trip. At that time, I will also provide training in Photovoice, research ethics, and survey implemention to studen research assistants.


Next year I will be here on Fulbright Scholarship, and we are already planning the course I will teach and the lectures to prepare for the department at large. My course will be “Justiça Ambiental” with lectures on water security and research methods.


I plan to travel across the North and Northeast. In March, I will visit Bragança in Pará to co-advise a PhD student on an urban water security and climate change project. In addition, the social cartography group works with communities in the Sertão on the border with Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, where concerns about water security have become a priority as new agro-businesses are moving into the region.

 

New Texas A&M Water Security Initiative

The Water Security Initiative, started in the College of Geosciences, is now part of the Provost’s Environmental Grand Challenge Program. I am pleased to act as the initiative’s program lead, working alongside partners and colleagues who engage in research on the many dimensions of water security.  As a Land Grant institution, we also seek to integrate training and engagement in our portfolio of activities.

Slide01The Water Security Initiative seeks to provide data-driven, analytically sound assessments of water security using effective metrics and models of water insecurity to improve society’s long-term water challenges. WSI research targets key threats to water security, including poverty, climate change, poor governance and social marginalization, to better understand critical water security challenges in the coming years.

Three water security themes unite Texas A&M researchers and other collaborators: (1) household water and sanitation security; (2) water governance & security; (3) water security, resilience, & climate change.

The scope of WSI activities is global as we recognize the important advances in water sustainability and policy development that originate in diverse environmental contexts and regions. Consequently, the WSI research portfolio examines water insecurity challenges in both developed and developing regions. Finally, our work advances the goal of sustainable and socially equitable water policy and interventions through the robust evaluation of central water security problems with explicit attention to the development of novel pathways and partnerships to translate research outcomes into meaningful and useful products for stakeholders, communities, and decision makers.

Soon we will launch our new website (July 2016) and announce the first of many activities and research activities.