Yesterday, I learned that I will be a Fulbright Scholar to Brazil to teach at the Universidade Federal de Ceará – Fortaleza (UFC) and conduct a research project on urban water provisioning and household water security. I am thrilled to work with students and faculty on an exciting project and further deepen our existing institutional and research relations for years to come.
Ten years ago, I thought I had left Brazil for the last time. I remember sitting in the Porto Velho airport, waiting for the intense smoke of burning forest to clear so I could take off to Brasília for my connection to Guarulhos. I just completed four weeks of field work, traipsing through the countryside with a backpack GPS outside of Vilhena, measuring land cover and talking with farmers about crop rotation, land contracts, land clearance practices, and soybean production expectations. Data from this trip would become material for one of my last articles on Brazilian agricultural development and the dynamic transformation of Central Brazil’s Cerrado, a topic I studied for over eight years as a graduate student and early career faculty. But I thought my research trip to Rondônia was my last to Brazil. Professional and personal demands precluded further research abroad, and my interests turned toward the pressing social and environmental inequities closer to home and in a community I had first worked with in the early 1990s. I wanted to understand why low-income Mexican-Americans living in peri-urban and rural subdivisions (colonias) in South Texas still struggled for adequate, affordable and reliable drinking water.
Today, I study environmental justice, water governance, and household water insecurity. My research, funded by NSF, examines ad-hoc water delivery and inadequate potable water supply for tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans living in colonias. My research addressed a central paradox: Why, despite $1.7 billion invested in water infrastructure, do tens of thousands of people still lack secure drinking water along the Texas-Mexico border? Is water insecurity produced and maintained through existing water governance regimes? If so, how? To answer these questions, I conducted qualitative study of water insecurity, then developed and implemented the first household-scale metric of water security. This research has yielded six publications and has been reported in regional media.
Recent institutional collaborations between the Texas A&M University Geography Department and geography faculty at the Universidade Federal de Ceará – Fortaleza (UFC) have opened new, exciting, and unexpected possibilities for me to return to Brazil. The Fulbright program will allow me to build on these emerging connections by deepening the sustainability of our educational and research relationships. The proposed project will provide the necessary institutional and collaborative context to exchange methodologies and research approaches on water resource governance and water security with Brazilian geographers. I may need to brush off my well-worn, dusty copy of Aurelio’s Portuguese-English dictionary, reorient my mental map of Brazil, and set my compass to the Northeast. But as a Fulbright Scholar, I will bring to bear my work on water security to problems of water provision in urban Brazil.