25 January 2013

The value of fieldwork (an early morning rant)

Since embarking on my time in the Blue Nile and Ethiopia for field work, I have had an unique experience. Before leaving to engage in fieldwork from my university, I was met with a bit of confusion and surprise from my colleagues and professors as to why I needed to actually go to the places I wanted to study, why I had chosen Ethiopia, why I needed months instead of weeks.

Anthropologists still get it. And geologists. Fieldwork is essential for understanding systems, and if you are a geographer, you should not gain a degree without it - fieldwork should be required.

I formerly worked as a environmental and energy security analysts. I focused on water. I used remote sensing tools coupled with computer-based mapping tools (GIS) to tell a story about change or a particular situation in a place. Added to this I would scour the news and websites to better understand what was happening on the ground. In our current age we rely on the internet too much. Although you can find news stories, blogs, or websites describing something, this by no means replaces the essential nature of actually seeing and experiencing for yourself. This is why I left my job and went back to university - I wanted to my hands dirty and better understand the nature of the questions I ask.

I have been steadily contacted by journalists, students, and NGOs since starting this work, identifying themselves as someone who researches the Grand Renaissance Dam. They are interested to speak with me about the data I have collected and my interest in the dam. Until this morning, I did not realize why I was meeting these requests with suspicion. The people in question are falsely representing themselves. How could they claim to be researchers on a dam they have not seen, the specs of which are not publicly available, and in some cases, have not even visited Ethiopia and in so doing, missed reality on the ground. And that is at least half of the story. The technical bits matter for a background section of a paper, the speculation may as well go into a fiction novel - and certainly not be a basis for a decision-making model! - but certainly if you are going to be responsible for moving and sharing information, you should do the work properly. Go to your field site. Spend months before you make a decision about what you think you know. Speak to the locals, the officials, give respect where it is due. People who live in a place and work in a system tend to know much more about that place and system than an "expert" (who are self-proclaimed) that parachutes in and impatiently insists they know what is happening there by spending a few days looking around, speaking with a few folks, and inevitably enjoying something like a good meal or boat ride to wrap up the trip. They then write a report and perpetuate irresponsibly gathered data that is probably largely erroneous, or correct without context.

It is all well and good that we have this fancy technology today of satellites and computer-based mapping that allows for analysis and remote understanding of things, like water systems. But academics and general researchers alike have become too reliant on their expensive sensors and technical gadgets. These things tell only part of the story, and they capture a snapshot in time. To make a point, in the academy there are terms for ground-truth: local knowledge, TEK or traditional ecological knowledge. The use of modifiers before the word knowledge indicates that these are considered types of knowledge, but not the main body of knowledge itself. The main body is simply the brilliance of the usually remote researcher to understand a system, write a paper, and be applauded by other researchers who use the same half-baked techniques. And I am talking about spendings some months collecting data. A sociologist or anthropologist would consider me a parachutest - someone who jumps in and jumps out. An American anthropolgist working in Africa, based in Ethiopia scoffed at me when I showed up in her office with my research in hand. She told me I'd never gain trust of Ethiopians in such a short project and they would lie to me, too afraid to tell the truth. That I should revisit my design and make a specifically worded survey, or some such thing.

I believe it is exactly these mistakes that have spilled over into our decision-making processes in government, in the international community, in banks...the world cannot be reduced to numbers and spatial trends detected on a computer screen. And on the other hand, to fully understand a situation, one does not need years - thus deterring your average researcher from embarking in the first place. To understand a system, you must take the time, but be reasonable. If you do not have the time, make the time. Be responsible for the information and data you profess to have and understand - gut-check. If you do not have the funds, save and improvise. Half of my current research is self-funded on my meager student assistanceship stipend - I think less than $10K in a year. I improvised and trusted that my efforts to move forward would be met with some hassle, but that everything is temporary. I also prayed a lot.

Field work is not always convenient or easy, but the value of seeing or hearing for yourself is enormous. And may be the only responsible course for research.

24 January 2013

Next destination is Mekong and Xayaburi Dam in news.

I have wrapped up my time in Ethiopia and starting to look at my next case study. Leaving for Mekong field work this week. Here is a recent article about the situation with the dam I hope to study in Laos:

Vietnam and Cambodia hit back at landmark Laos dam

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Locals manoeuvre their small vessels along the Mekong river in Phnom Penh November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
BANGKOK | Fri Jan 18, 2013 5:05am EST
(Reuters) - Vietnam urged Laos to halt constructionof a $3.5 billion hydropower dam pending further study, environmental activists said on Friday after a meeting of the Mekong River Commission.
The activists said Cambodia, also downriver from the Xayaburi dam, accused Laos during heated discussions on Wednesday and Thursday of failing to consult on the project.
The dam in northern Laos, the first of 11 planned for the lower Mekong river running through Southeast Asia, threatens the livelihood of tens of millions who depend on the river's aquatic resources, activists say.
"Vietnam requested that no further developments on the Mekong mainstream occur until the Mekong mainstream dams study agreed upon at least year's Council Meeting is completed," International Rivers, an NGO devoted to river conservation, said in a statement.
"The Cambodian delegation asserted that Laos had misinterpreted the Mekong Agreement."
Officials from Cambodia and Vietnam were not immediately available for comment.
Ministers from member countries that make up the Mekong RiverCommission (MRC) overseeing the river's development -- Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand -- met in northern Laos on Wednesday and Thursday.
The MRC is bound by treaty to hold inter-governmental consultations before dams are built. But members have no veto.
"In the absence of an agreement, other countries can disagree if they like but this can't stop Laos," said Jian-hua Meng, a specialist in sustainable hydropower at the World Wildlife Fund.
"The role of the MRC is now being questioned along with the level of investment put in the organization."
In December 2011, MRC member states agreed to conduct new environmental impact assessments before construction proceeded, but last August Ch Karnchang PCL, the Thai construction company behind the project, said it had resumed work.
A groundbreaking ceremony in November signaled the formal start of construction, said Meng.
Ch Karnchang's 50 percent-owned subsidiary, Xayaburi Power Co, has received a 29-year concession from the Laotian government to operate the dam's power plant and Thailand is set to buy around 95 percent of the electricity generated.
Milton Osborne of the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign policy think tank, said Xayaburi marked a turning-point that would enable others to build their own dams, including Cambodia.
He described as a "monstrous disaster" a proposal for a Chinese power company to build a dam at Sambor in northeastern Cambodia, on a tributary of the Mekong.
"It would be so disastrous, blocking one of the main fish migratory systems," he said by telephone.
Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia share the lower stretches of the 4,000-km (2,500-mile) Mekong. Activists say dams could threaten food security in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The river provides up to 80 percent of the animal protein consumed in Cambodia and sediment and changes to river flow threaten the Mekong Delta, which contributes half of Vietnam's agricultural GDP.
Cambodia approved its own hydroelectric dams in November.
A second Cambodian project, the Lower Sesan dam in northern Stung Treng province, is a joint venture between Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese companies. Campaigners say it would reduce the fish catch in a country with malnutrition issues.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Alan Raybould and Ron Popeski)

23 January 2013

Article about Nile Gathering

Two of our conference participants coauthored a story for a Sudanese paper about the Nile Gathering. Please check it out!

First Nile Gathering launched in Al Shalal – Aswan, South Egypt

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Ali AskouriAli Askouri


The Nile Project aims to bring the riparian communities together

By Jamie Freedman and Ali Askouri

Aswan, January 13th 2013

Representatives of the communities of the world’s longest river are gathering here in the serenity of the Nile’s First cataract to discuss their mutual concerns and how to build bridges to extend outreach and come together to serve this single cause. 

More than twenty five participants from the riparian communities joined by friends and supporters from around the world have travelled to Aswan to attend the first conference organized by the Nile Project, hosted at the Fekra Cultural Centre in Aswan.

The choice of the location reflects the group’s deep awareness of the historical developments that took place in Nubia to date. The Fekra Cultural Centre is located on the East Side of the Nile river between the High Dam and the Old Aswan Dam near the Greco-Roman Philae Temple.  The area used to be the site of the First cataract of the Nile before it was flooded a century ago. In the past the area also served as a main river harbor between Egypt/Sudan and the African interior before the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1971.

 “We were rich and happy” laments Fekra Centre founder Abdel Khalek El Betiti pointing his finger to a deserted railway station. “Trade between Egypt, Sudan and other parts of Africa passed through the railway station. Now there is nothing.”

In their daily fifteen minute trip from the hotel in Aswan to the Fekra Centre the participants travel through a long history of the first human civilization cut short by modern technologies which have forever altered the landscape and transformed human activity. The area provides the participants with stark examples of how human attempts to harness nature impacts the lives of local communities and their social and economic ties.

The Nile Project is the brainchild of the Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero. Girgis is excited about exploring new approaches of understanding the Nile as one system where fishing, irrigation, tourism, and transportation are intricately related to climate change, floods, droughts and dams.

“Most of us who live within this system have no idea what these relationships mean,” explains Girgis. “How do all these worlds affect one another? How do they come together to affect the Nile? And what can we do to help restore the equilibrium of this complex system?”

Unlike many other rivers of the world, the Nile river runs through eleven countries linking numerous communities and cultures.  Despite the interdependence of these communities, no attempt has been made to bridge communal and cultural gaps. “These issues have been ignored in past centuries by politicians and governments” says one expert who is interested in how to strategize the role of communities in the Nile River ecosystem.

The Project’s mission is to inspire, educate and empower Nile citizens to work together to strengthen the sustainability of the river’s ecosystem.  “I think the Nile Project raises awareness among all stakeholders including communities and government, mobilizing them to take action wherever they are in the way to deal with the challenges about the Nile. We have come here to learn, share and take what we’ve learned back to our communities” says Ezekielole Katato a Masai from Kenya.

The gathering encompasses a four-day strategic planning workshop that builds on the Project’s mission to connect the people of the Nile basin through cultural dialogue, followed by a two-week music residency to develop music that can generate empathy and inspire cultural and environmental curiosity.

Participants have expertise in fields of environment, culture, agriculture, finance, education, development, media, cross-cultural dialogue, conflict resolution and intercultural learning. They come from Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Eritrea and are joined by experts and activists from United States, Germany, Canada, El Salvador, Netherlands, Greece, Japan, Great Britain and Switzerland.

“The Nile Project confirms my dream of a collection musicians from the Nile River coming together to express the dreams and hopes of the riparian communities for the advance of peace and co-existence” says Betiti the founder of Fekra Centre. “For me personally it’s very powerful tool to have river people meeting to talk about the challenges and problems. It helps to understand each other’s music and culture because we share one river and one Nile Culture. Music especially is a wonderful tool because it is a universal language.”

17 January 2013

Co-authored Paper on Water Security and Complexity finally in print!

My first Oregon State University co-authored paper is in the current issue of Journal of Contemporary Research and Education, Issue 149, Special Issue on Water and International Security. Title is "Case Studies on Water Security: Analysis of System Complexity and the Role of Institutions."

Check out the the case study on the Aral Sea...and this wonderful graphic.

You can view or download the .pdf here:


Grand Renaissance Dam Turbines

According to this article, the turbines will begin installation later this year. They will be supplied by a French company Alstom. I did not know that France still built such things. That is a really fast timeline for construction considering where the project was when I saw it in November 2012.

Water and the Arts

Looks like there are some exciting events coming up this year using water to connect artists and scientists - musicians, visual artists, scientists, activists, academics, and water professionals. The Colours of Water conference will present the concept and reality of water through different sensory experiences and the nexus of these above mentioned discourses will take place in England on International Water Week 2013. 

Story about the Colorado River

This is a nice short piece about one transboundary river in the United States, the Colorado, that has been dammed and overdrawn for years. Impacts are felt in Mexico, but the overwhelming population in the US, including Phoenix and Las Vegas, muffle the story. The hope in this article is about what can happen at an individual level - voluntary change by the water users themselves. Perhaps this point can be amplified and serve as a new model to watershed management. One that takes into account the context, the place, but most importantly, the individual people involved, not just a top-down decision making tree that bureaucracy renders near to impossible for anyone with less patience than a saint.

What do you think?

Mudflats of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico

10 January 2013

The Nile Gathering in Aswan, Egypt

This week I am attending the Nile Gathering, the first official conference of The Nile Project. This is an innovative approach to the cultural and political complexities faced in the Nile River basin. The Nile River includes 11 riparian countries and no official river treaty exists that gives every country a voice. There is an existing Nile treaty, but it was drafted during colonial era before many of the countries established as individual nation-states. You can read more about the project in the news here.

This Project seeks to foster communication and education about the Nile River through music and cultural exchange. Being the first gathering, will be exciting to see what comes out of the next few days.

04 January 2013

Water Charity Follow-up

I haven't forgotten, I just haven't received a response yet. Still waiting...

Another article on the Grand Renaissance Dam

Am I going to start abbreviating the name of this dam?

Here is another article from early in December:

Source: http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article44698#

Panel pushes study on Ethiopia’s Nile dam amid Egypt crises

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By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
December 1, 2012 (ADDIS ABABA) – The international panel of experts asked by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to assess the impact of Ethiopia’s controversial Nile dam project has continued its study despite fresh political turmoil in Cairo over a decree that gives Egypt’s President sweeping new powers.
The panel of experts’ also known as tripartite committee has held its fourth meeting in Addis Ababa this week to further review the impact of Ethiopia’s grand renaissance dam.
During the meeting held from 26-28 November, the team has evaluated a document presented by Addis Ababa which details the benefit the project offers to down stream countries of Egypt and Sudan.
The tripartite committee has evaluated and studied the documents and the possible environmental impacts of the Dam as well as its socio-economic benefits according to Engineer Simegnew Bekele, Project Manager of Ethiopia’s renaissance dam. 
The document also provided details on the construction of the mega dam and other environmental studies made on site.
Following the meeting, the team of experts paid a visit to the construction site, which is located in Benishangul Gumuz region, some 30 kilometers from the border with Sudan.
After Ethiopia launched the construction of the Grand dam, Africa’s biggest, on the Blue Nile River, Egypt has expressed fears that it will reduce the water flow significantly and has raised strong objections against the project and urged international donors to refrain from funding the mega dam.
During the Mubarek era, Egypt refused to negotiate a more equitable utilization of the Nile’s water, maintaining that any dam construction would be seen as a “national security threat” and warned upstream countries from doing so.
This was been seen as overly aggressive stance by some upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia which is a source of around 85% of the Nile water.
According to a document published by the whistle-blowing organization Wikileaks, Egypt’s Mubarak regime had agreed with the Sudanese government to an build air base in the western Darfur region to carry out airstrikes against Ethiopia’s mega Dam. An allegation both Cairo and Khartoum denied.
However, the issue of Nile water now seems to be far from being a top priority for post-Mubarak leaders in Cairo, who are tied in political disputes over the powers of the President and a new constitution that is due to be voted on later this month.
Ethiopia which self-funds the $ 5 billion mega-dams project says construction is on track to complete the dam by 2015. Currently some 14 percent of the construction is accomplished.
The international panel of experts which was set to build trust and transparency among Nile riparian states is expected to reveal and submit its final findings on dam’s impact to the governments of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, in May 2013.
The Grand Renaissance Dam has a power generating capacity of 6,000MW and when completed it will enable the Horn of Africa nation to export more power to its neighbours.
Currently Ethiopia is exporting hydro-power processed electricity to Djibouti and Sudan. It will soon start exports to Kenya, according to the state utility, Ethiopia Electric and Power Corporation (EEPCo).
Recently South Sudan has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopian government to build a transmission line that will connect their power grids, enabling Africa’s newest nation to import power.