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Water in Africa Symposium: Thoughts from the keynote speakers

Interviews with Line Gordon, Munira Anyonge Bashir, and Coleen Vogel

April 2019 - Interviewed by Tomas Pickering

During the Water in Africa Symposium, April 2019, Tomas Pickering sat down and interviewed the three keynote speakers, Line Gordon, Munira Bashir, and Coleen Vogel. Each answered a similar series of questions first about water challenges iAfrica and the programs where they see success and inspiration and secondly questions to get advice for graduate students interested in addressing international water issues.

You can listen to each of their interviews here.

Line Gordon’s Interview:

Munira Bashir’s Interview:

Coleen Vogel’s Interview:

Below are some responses from each speaker, Line, then Munira, then Coleen, summarized and lightly edited for clarity based on the interviews.

Line Gordon – Speaks about research to address climate change challenges with small-holder farmers in West Africa and encourages graduate students to train in interdisciplinary work and teams.

Question: Welcome, and thank you very much for speaking us at the Africa Center. First off, I was wondering if you could explain some of the water issues in Africa that you find particularly important?

Line: For me a lot of what I’m interested in is the role of water in dry land areas. Places where you have low precipitation, high evaporation. Which means water scarcity is a big issue. At the same time you have relatively poor soils; it’s very hard to make them productive and you have a growing population and very low yields. So I am interested in how can you capture more water when it rains on these lands and use it for more productive agricultural use. It is also a continent where most of the agricultural systems are rain fed where there’s very little irrigation. If you look into the future we don’t see that irrigation is going to be a major way to solve the African water scarcity issues. We really need to have to focus on the rain fed agricultural systems and how to make them more productive.

Question: Why is irrigation not as viable of a solution for some of these places at least?

Line: At least in the semi-arid regions you really don’t have that much runoff. Also there’s not so much water available for irrigation and it’s often populations living far away from major rivers. It also requires big expansive infrastructure so if it’s possible to capture the rainfall and make it more effective, then it can actually be much cheaper and have some of the same benefits to improve agricultural production.

Question: Do you have any examples of some of these smaller scale projects or actions that you have seen?

Line: I’ve been working with farmers in Burkina Faso in West Africa where they use a structure where the farmers dig out half moon shapes across the field which they fill with compost. The half moon structure is designed so that it captures runoff water and it stops along the structures and infiltrates into the ground and if you combine that with compost and manure fertilizers you can really see a big improvement in crop production. This is just one type of example there are lots of types of the small-scale solutions that are taking place. There’s lots of civil society organizations that help with farmer to farmer solutions. You can see they are starting to be implemented across the different regions of West Africa; it’s more of a bottom up movement.

Question: What are some of the barriers that you see people facing to implement these kinds of solutions?

Line: It’s very heavy labor so I think that is a big barrier. Fertilizer is another big barrier. This is also a way to really improve yields but one question is it improving yields enough to make it worthwhile. I also think with a changing climate with rainfall becoming more variable and erratic and more droughts there is a big challenge. So those are some of the things that are undermining these local interventions.

Question: What about any dilemmas on your end? What are the challenges or barriers for you doing the science that you want to accomplish to help people?

Line: That’s a big question, hahaha. For me living in Sweden I think basically it’s interesting to support this type of research but it really has to be driven also by the locals. It’s really important to take on local researchers to make sure they own some of the research questions. Sometimes I can feel that you’re sort of a Northern citizen coming to these places to understand the challenges and opportunities and it’s really important to have good and strong local partnerships.

Question: Are there any particular ways that you’ve gone about establishing some of those relationships?

Line: It can be very challenging but some of the things that we’ve done are to pair students. So when I’ve had masters students for example from Sweden doing fieldwork I pair them with local master students or PhD students. This way they have some sort of counterpart from the local place for them to work together. It’s a way for the Swedish student to bring some outside perspective and maybe some other types of scientific tools and experiences while the local partners are much better at understanding some of the local realities. In the meeting between the students they really can help each other to improve their projects.

Question: Looking at your field now and where it might go in the next 20 years, if you were currently a graduate student how might you position yourself to make a difference in ways that you find interesting?

Line: Yeah I think one important thing is to always be curious and open-minded and interested in learning about new things. Maybe that seems like the basis for any scientist but sometimes I think we’re trained and thinking about becoming the experts to have lots of skills with us that we bring, but especially in these kinds of places I think it is really important to be interested in learning about the local places you go and the culture. To learn about the ways and the experience of the local partners in the project is very important and can be extremely enriching. And being willing to sort of adapt your own research questions. I think that’s one important part especially if you’re working and doing field work in different parts of Africa. The other thing is to have a very interdisciplinary background.Always keep the curiosity of learning from other subjects. This is also a very important aspect that helps. It’s a very general answer but read in other fields and learn from others’ experiences.

Question: And any tips for how to establish some of those collaborative relationships?

Line: I think finding people that you feel that you have fun working with, where you can establish a level of trust and excitement, and also they like exploring new areas. And of course don’t hesitate to get in touch with people where you read their work that inspires you where you think that this is a person that can bring in some something exciting into what I’m doing and see if you can start talking with them.

Question: Finally, I’m curious if you have any additional advice for graduate students or even recommendations on advice that they should be ignoring at this point in time?

Line: Well because I’m trained in interdisciplinary practices and I come from an interdisciplinary center I would say ignore this type of advice that says first you have to get in-depth skills in one subject before you can branch out. I think as a graduate student you can definitely get inspiration and collaboration from other fields. And I feel like sometimes there’s too much of a push from more senior scientists that say you have to first do really in-depth work. We really need people who are also taking a broader perspective and who get trained from the beginning on how to combine different types of methodologies and theories and disciplinary backgrounds.

Please listen to Line’s interview for full responses and answers to additional questions.

Munira Anyonge Bashir – Talks about watershed restoration efforts in Kenya and advises graduate students to look at the practical issues that might help prevent disasters in the future.

Question: Could you explain some of the water challenges in Kenya or the region that are on your mind?

Munira: So, what’s on my mind right now is that Kenya has been experiencing frequent droughts in recent years. Normally, we experience droughts in cycles about every 7 years. Which has given us time to organize ourselves between events. But we’ve begun to see droughts happening every 2 years and we are not prepared. And this comes with a lot of challenges because the areas that we’re working in as The Nature Conservancy are pastoralist areas which are very dry. There is the issue of lack of water and pastoralists have to trek miles and miles looking for water for their cattle and grass. And what we’ve seen that is a big challenge and that we all have agreed that we need to address is the conflict that comes with that. We’ve seen a lot of cattle dying and even some people being killed because of the lack of water. In this country we have a problem because we are not prepared for critical times like drought events. When rain comes we need to harvest rain for the future but we don’t do that, because previously we have been seeing the cycle of rain coming frequently and on time. But I think that we are now beginning to think that we need to prepare ourselves. At The Nature Conservancy we are now working in a watershed that provides about 95% of the water to Nairobi with farmers to harvest rainwater and use it for irrigation of crops and we’ve seen very good results.

Question: And how do you see the farmers responding, are they excited about this program?

Munira: Yeah they are actually very excited. We, at TNC, are sitting across a section of Kenyans that are taking this as a model program. This project is actually a public-private partnership that is working in four counties and what we’ve seen is that we have extension officers from the county government providing extension services to the farmers and the farmers are excited because the program actually is holistic addressing many of their concerns.

Question: What other types of innovations and approaches to solve some of these water challenges keep you hopeful and inspired?

Munira: So what keeps me hopeful is the people that are downstream. I’m talking about the big corporates. The companies that use water to produce their major products, like Coca-Cola or the Kenyan breweries. What we’ve seen is they have started caring about where their water comes from and they want to come on board to solve water issues. They are willing to invest in their water catchment areas to protect them. We’ve seen these people giving money for buying seedlings to plant trees in the catchment area. Because of the poverty levels people have cut trees and they do not have seedlings to replace and plant more trees. So there is this campaign to cut one tree and plant another one. The big corporates are coming in to support the farmers. So that keeps me very hopeful. Also now we are actually getting into a drought season because rains were supposed to come in March this year but up to now they have not come. Generally, we are not really prepared but in some areas people have prepared with water pans. And a beauty about the water pans, what we hear from farmers, is they are able to have 5 to 6 seasons of crop planting with the water they have harvested, which was not possible before. Hopefully this will be replicated elsewhere in the country.

Question: That’s wonderful. Can you speak more to this issue and what types of solutions, planning, and actions that are needed?

Munira: So what comes to mind to me as a country we need to be prepared so what the government has done is put together a disaster management authority. But because the government is very bureaucratic it takes a long time for actions. For me personally I believe in action. So I would like to see the government take more action. I think, if you go to the government with solutions and not criticism I think you can work to put some measures in place to take care of challenges.

Please listen to Munira’s interview for full responses and answers to additional questions.

Coleen Vogel – Speaks about water access equality issues in South Africa and the need to change how universities train and support interdisciplinary research to answer complex challenges. 

Question: First off, I was hoping you could explain some of the water challenges in South Africa that you find interesting?

Coleen: So obviously getting access to water, good quality water, is a big thing. I think this is a basic human right. I think my country has a pretty good reputation we’ve really started to deliver water but still it’s not as great as it could be. But that’s one side, the other side of research that I’m interested in is water as a risk. So I’m interested in drought or when there’s a cyclone. When there’s too much, when there’s too little. And also now I’m getting more interested in how we bring in those concepts and discuss them. So I think notions that we are running out of water are too simple. We need to be bringing in a much more nuanced version of who is getting access and controlling water and who has hegemony over water. I’m quite interested to understand those issues as well.

Question: You are talking about the big inequalities in terms of access to clean safe potable water?

Coleen: Yes that’s absolutely it. For example, the Cape Town drought really threw into focus people who normally have access to water who now are suddenly like people whom are living without access to water everyday. Those inequalities I think are really quite stark. I don’t only look at water as an access issue I think it’s really important to look at who’s managing the water and who is getting access and environmental justice issues around that. I think it’s a huge topic right now.

Question: I’m curious if you have advice for graduate students here in the United States that want to support and work on these kinds of issues and challenges.

Coleen: So I think obviously to have a good background training in your discipline. But then I also think you need to work on how you communicate research. It is also important to learn how you ask the big questions and find the right connections in Africa and not just be a scientist parachuting in and out. This might be tempting, going in and doing research for like a month at a time, but you’ll never learn like that. And some of us have been working for years and years and years and we still don’t know it all. So get a solid grounding in what you are interested in doing and then to link up with the right partners with NGOs or Universities to get into a place building trust relationships. I don’t think you can just fly in and out, you need to understand the politics and cultural dimensions.

Question: What keeps you motivated to do what you do?

Coleen: I think for me at the moment what keeps me hopeful is the younger generation that are really starting to mobilize. They will not just sit around and wait for someone else. For me I find that really interesting, how they are really starting to wake up in a way and say that this is serious and they are now demanding information and their rights. Even in the communities that I live the young without a doubt have huge problems. They don’t have access to services but the environment is huge and high up on their list. They want to become engaged. So for me the universities have to shift the training programs. I actually think we’re not going to quite cut it in the old way of doing science and we have to start doing science differently at certain levels particularly at the post graduate level.

Question: What do you have in mind?

Coleen: I’m not saying throw out all the basic degrees obviously you need that solid training but if we’re really going to get into these complex wicked challenges then we’ve got to start thinking a little more creatively. For example I’m working with some artists now who are coming in as legitimate artists and not using art to communicate but to understand the scientific problems that we’re dealing with and it’s just a complete eye opener because they come from a different paradigm. I’m not sure it’s going to happen in the universities. How do the universities maintain their legitimacy where good science gets done and gets rewarded but also puts its money where its mouth is and starts to bring in other ways of looking at the problems. And for those students that want to go that way allow them to do that without saying oh that’s not science. Because I think it’s problematic.

Question: Do you have more advice for those coming into this field or even advice that they should be ignoring? Should we really push ourselves to force the situation?

Coleen: I think the way I did it is not necessarily the best way to do it but if you want to stay in academia you’ve got to play the game but still keep your foot in another patch. So I think you’ve got to decide it’s a tough choice. As soon as you want to do this interdisciplinary co-design kind of research that everyone is saying we need to be doing in most cases the walls just go straight up, the silos get stronger. We all really wave our hands and talk about it but actually on the ground it’s not treated as legitimate science. But I think that is shifting now. I think people are mobilizing in different areas. Like business is now talking green. Financial systems are talking about massive financial changes. The whole world economy is being put forward against the normal kind of way of looking things. I think things are starting to be pushed from lots of angles but it’s a tough one I would advise young scholars to make sure you’re always grounded in what you do so if you’re in ecology be an ecologist be a good ecologist but then later start doing more mixed stuff. I think if you mix too soon to become a generalist and you lose credibility and maybe people don’t really take you seriously. Yeah it’s tough.

Question: Are there any published works or individuals out there that you really learned a lot from that you would recommend?

Coleen: Sure there’s a lot right. Works like Naomi Klein’s work “This Changes Everything”. There’s a really good paper by Maria Kaika “Don’t call me resilient again!”. That was a really powerful recent read I had. I think people can easily slip into the commodification of just doing another paper because you have to do a paper but I think you have to be careful not to become a machine and start to think about what is the difference I’m really making. For many parts of my life I also wrote in a journal for teachers so I was constantly trying not to just do academic work. The colleague of mine who is doing some really interesting work is Karen O’Brien’s quantum social theory, which is really saying we need a different way of looking at the social sciences.

Please listen to Coleen’s interview for full responses and answers to additional questions.