25 July 2014

Research Highlighted by College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University

My former college at Oregon State, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, just posted an interview I gave about my PhD research on their pages. The interview process was fun and cathartic. The interviewer, a local published author Abby Metzger, did a fabulous job of cutting out my digressions and focusing the text. I got to speak mostly about my work in the field in Ethiopia, highlighting the little discussed Gumuz People who will be displaced from the Renaissance Dam, their livelihoods completely altered.

The human-water intertwine

Jennifer Veilleux in EthiopiaJennifer Veilleux in the Benishangul-Gumuz state of Ethiopia, interviewing a Gumuz woman in a village in the Blue Nile Valley.

Rivers, dams, and conflict resolution in Ethiopia

Two years ago, the online newspaper Aljazeera ran a stark headline: Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030. Similar stories have splashed the front pages of major newspapers for nearly 20 years, with many predicting global water wars as greed, power, and scarcity collide.
Jennifer Veilleux sees a different picture. The recent Ph.D. graduate in Oregon State's geography program studied human dimensions of dam development on international rivers. Her work explored the complex intertwine between people and water, and how resource sharing can serve as a platform for peace rather than conflict.
"Water is needed and shared by every sector of human society and ecosystem. It shapes the physical and human landscape," she said. "I wanted to explore how different communities of people fit in when water is shared between countries and cultures, while examining how resource use can be cooperative."
Veilleux's research took her to Ethiopia's Blue Nile, where she spent five months interviewing urban Ethiopians, as well as rural communities who will be displaced by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The dam presents both enormous opportunities and challenges for Ethiopia. On one hand, it will provide reliable power. "Only about 40 percent of Ethiopia has electricity. When complete, the massive, 6,000 MW Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, expanding electricity coverage in Ethiopia and neighboring countries," Veilleux said.
It's also a source of pride for Ethiopians, who are eager to shed the perception of being a famine and donor country rather than an African leader with a middleclass economy, says Veilleux.
"Dams are really big power symbols, not just for their capacity to harness energy, but as symbols of modernity and identity," she said.
Yet, the dam means something else for the 20,000 local people who will be displaced by the project. The vast majority of these are the Gumuz people, a little-studied subsistence culture found mostly along the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia and Sudan. Local Gumuz have important traditional knowledge about the region's natural resources and depend on the Blue Nile River for livelihood and identity. The river is a vital source for water, food, and artisanal gold mining that allows for economic trade with nearby communities.
While the Ethiopian government has a comprehensive resettlement program, Veilleux's research raises many important (and unanswered) questions: What will replace gold as a new source of cash economy? How will farming change without seasonal flooding? Will malaria rates increase with a stagnant reservoir? How will it change the fish and equipment needed to catch them? How will the Gumuz stay connected to other villages when the now-navigable river becomes an expansive lake? Will moving to an urban area lead to increased social problems related to modern life, such as a loss of cultural identity?
She also made an unexpected find that went against prevailing predictions of water wars: Despite the dam's threat to uproot the Gumuz and their subsistence culture, study participants showed flexibility, resolve, and general acceptance.
"I think people had a very keen sense of being river people, meaning they are very adamant about staying near the water because it's their everything, their life. But I was surprised at how flexible they were about moving," she said.
One possible explanation is that the project may benefit the Gumuz in certain respects. "If done correctly, the Ethiopian government can greatly improve some of the challenges that the Gumuz communities face due to malnutrition, disease, or lack of access to secondary or higher education. Resource sharing will also improve the lives of Ethiopians who benefit from expanded electricity," Veilleux said.
But she cautioned that the cultural costs should not be ignored. "More attention needs to be spent on identifying the vulnerabilities and strengths of local communities, to buffer possible threats to these areas, and to make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs."
Using her qualitative data from the Gumuz people, as well as a similar comparison study in Laos on the Xayaburi Dam, Veilleux developed a Human Security Measurement Key that will help identify security vulnerabilities in complex resource-dependent systems. The key provides a platform to compare disparate data sources across multiple geographic and time scales, and has been integrated into theTransboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD), a comprehensive set of water data that aids in understanding water conflict and cooperation.

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