Leaving the Land of a Thousand Hills

From The New York Times “Scientist at Work – Notes from the Field”

Published September 15, 2010

By Michael J. Mascarenhas

Our two-week baseline assessment in Rwanda came to an end, and it was time for me to leave “the land of a thousand hills” and head back to New York. I have much data to sift through — my team interviewed 48 households, and collectively we surveyed 378 households in the three sectors. I leave the field with many research-type questions — more than when I entered. For example, how do we actually measure this complex activity known as water access in subsistence communities? I am also left wondering about the relationship between social inequality and environmental disparity, and the social impact that technological changes might bring about in these subsistence communities.
Like most of you, I want to see (and am happy to be a part of) improvements in water services in developing areas like rural Rwanda. Water for People, together with a large contingent of other nonprofit water development institutions, like WaterAid, Charity:Water and Water.org, to name only three, are engaged in various (and very successful) sponsorship drives, research initiatives and technological improvements to help water access. The objective of these organizations is to help provide those who, by virtue of where they live and who they are (poor, and lacking political power), do not have appropriate access to what many believe is a basic human right — water.
However, my fieldwork has also taught me that we should be cautious about the research methods and technological improvements introduced in the name of water aid and development. Technological improvements, even improved gravity-fed public taps, have impacts that are not always predictable or in the beneficiaries’ best interests in terms of stability and sustainability. Let me explain from the changes I have observed in farming practices where these new water technologies have been introduced.
Michael J. Mascarenhas
There is widespread agreement among the households we interviewed that most of their lives are better since their village received an improved gravity-fed public tap. But in order to get water from an improved system, households must come to the taps ready to pay. For many subsistence farmers in rural Rwanda, who do not readily function in a market economy, paying for water is a major barrier to access. Because there are few improved systems, many households still have to travel long distances to get water from a public tap. Given the choice, they will seek water closer to home from an unimproved system (or local ephemeral springs or the river) if it saves them money and time.
Many households are too poor to raise the 10 Rwandan francs per jerrycan. Many participants said, “This is great, if you can afford it.” Others, who can afford only one or two jerrycans per day, limit the amount of water they consume, which is already not enough to get by.
The installation of improved public water systems has also changed the farming practices of many households. In order to purchase water, revenue has to be generated, so many households are now planting cash crops, in particular coffee, instead of cassava, beans, maize and other crops that have historically fed their family members. This has introduced much uncertainty and anxiety into the lives of subsistence farmers. If the price of coffee decreases on the world market, the trivial purchasing power of subsistence farmers also diminishes, further compromising not only their ability to purchase water but their ability to feed themselves and their overall economic well-being. And as more farmers move into coffee production, the price of coffee will surely decrease, further jeopardizing subsistence farming in rural Rwanda.
Michael J. Mascarenhas – Cash crops like coffee are replacing subsistence crops.
Because it now costs money to irrigate, many households have stopped cultivating crops that require irrigation, like tomatoes, peppers, onions, passion fruit and ibinyomoro (tree tomatoes). These fruits and vegetables not only fed the family, but surpluses (usually 30 percent of the total yield) were taken to the local market to sell, generating revenue for desperately needed goods (clothing, tools, etc.) that the household was unable to make.
Lastly, all the households I interviewed complained about the recent privatization of the improved public taps. Until three months ago, the taps were run by a local water collective, and the cost to fill each jerrycan was 5 Rwandan francs. Then the district government entered into a contract with a local entrepreneur to manage all the improved water systems. The price doubled, with, according the households I interviewed, no notable improvement in the quality or quantity of water. For the first time in these villages, some people are going into debt (not paying for 30 days or more) to pay for access to drinking water.
In summary, providing drinking water to subsistence communities is much more than simply providing access. It is also about introducing technologies and political economies that are in many ways incommensurate with subsistence livelihoods. Notions of access are also heavily embedded in underlying power dynamics and social inequality. Providing legitimate — just and fair — access to drinking water in a manner that is in the beneficiaries’ best interest will require a different approach to development and sustainability in the global south.

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