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Culture important in water management

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the small African village of Gbenikoro, which is in a remote part of northern Sierra Leone’s Koinadugu District, there is a plateau. And if you ride in a Range Rover to the top of the plateau and step out, as Fenda Akiwumi has, a rice swamp extends before you. It’s a spectacular view of the most beautiful body of water she says she has ever seen in her life.

“The green of this rice swamp is unlike anything I have ever seen before or since,” she says. “It’s breathtaking.”

The remark is high praise from a hydrogeologist whose life’s work revolves around water and who has observed rivers, lakes and oceans all over the world. And yet, it’s not the only eye-opening experience the assistant professor of geography at USF had during the 14 years she spent as a hydrogeologist for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Sierra Leone.

The years Akiwumi spent travelling the rural African countryside promoting large-scale water supply, hydroelectric energy and transfer system projects provided her with insight that continues to define her research and teaching today. As she witnessed the lives of the indigenous people living outside the urban boundaries, she gained new understanding of why many times water projects in these areas would fail.

“I saw that in traditional settings, water has major spiritual and social dimensions. A river might be a sacred site where rituals have taken place for generations, or it might be a social setting for women. Modern Western approaches view water as an economic good. A hydrogeologist decides where the best place is for a well based on scientific and engineering reasons, but in reality, that might not be the best place at all for the people.

“So, inevitably, the failure of water projects in the rural areas could be attributed to differences in water culture.”

Consequently, at a UNESCO IHP (International Hydrological Programme) Conference in Germany on “Water Resource Planning in a Changing World,” she presented a paper that took her fellow hydrogeologists, scientists and engineers from around the globe by surprise. Titled “Some Humanistic Perspectives on Sustainable Water Resources Development in an African Nation,” Akiwumi’s paper concluded that indigenous people’s perspective on water use and management contrasts with modern Western approaches. Conflict between the two styles of management limits community participation and, therefore, effective development of the resource.

While what Akiwumi presented at the time was a fresh perspective at a highly scientific and technical conference, she says it was more because of who she was as a hydrogeologist focused on groundwater and its movement that caused such a stir.

“I was a scientist suggesting that water resources management issues are as much cultural as they are technical. That’s a perspective an anthropologist would take,” she says.

Nonetheless, Akiwumi, who joined USF in 2006, ignited a spark that day – a spark that has grown into a major effort to bring cultural diversity into mainstream water resources management to ensure the sustainability of both water and cultures.

“Projects need to adopt a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary approach. Water scientists need to broaden their knowledge base to encompass a variety of relevant disciplines such as history, sociology and anthropology. And the views of indigenous and rural people must be balanced with the methodologies based on modern development techniques.”

Akiwumi earned a M.S. in hydrogeology from the University of London and a Ph.D. in environmental geography from Texas State University San Marco. Her doctoral work at Texas State tied together the multidisciplinary dimensions of water resources management, adding the social, cultural and political dimensions to her hydrogeological foundation.

At USF, Akiwumi continues her involvement with UNESCO. In 2008, she was named the inaugural chair for UNESCO’s expert advisory group on “Water and Cultural Diversity,” which has launched a database and Community of Practice on the subject. “We’re also working on a book project. A paper I presented at an international symposium, “Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures?” in Kyoto, Japan last year on integrating cultural diversity into the Sierra Leone water sector will be my contribution.”

In addition to her work with UNESCO, Akiwumi is a co-investigator on a National Science Foundation grant project focused on urban development, power relations and water redistribution as drivers of wetland change in the Tampa Bay urban ecosystem and is researching local perceptions of water. She continues to do research in Sierra Leone on water sustainability and development issues such as environmental deterioration, socio-cultural change, and the livelihoods of women in alluvial mining areas. And in Guyana, she is working on mercury risk perception and artisanal gold mining, as well as mercury risk and fishing in Tampa Bay.

“All these projects relate to water in one way or another,” says Akiwumi, adding that she integrates much of her research into her classes – a graduate seminar in global sustainable development and undergraduate courses in world regional geography and global conservation.

“Water is life, itself, and a human right. So it is critical that we understand that people view water in different ways.”

Filed under:Arts and Sciences Geography, Environment, and Planning School of Social Sciences Research  
Author: Mary Beth Erskine