From Rwanda to the New York Times

by Mary Martialay on August 24, 2010

Be sure to follow Michael Mascarenhas, a professor of science and technology studies, as he blogs for the New York Times’ “Scientist at Work” while on a two-week research trip in Rwanda. Mascarenhas is the second Rensselaer professor to appear on the blog, which chronicles the work of scientists in the field.

Although he’s only days into his visit to Rwanda, Macarenhas already has plenty to write about.  His first post, which appeared today, introduced readers to the purpose of his visit: Surveying baseline conditions in the Rulindo region for the international development organization Water For People.

Michael Mascarenhas in India

Michael Mascarenhas in India

Water For People is in the early stages of a water development project in the region. The organization’s approach (the homepage declares “broken pumps and filled latrines litter the developing world, solutions must last to make a long-term difference”) convinced Mascarenhas to volunteer his expertise as a sociologist toward the survey project.

His job will be tailoring the survey to gather data that elucidates the best solutions for the area.

“Where are the water holes? What kind of pumps are being used? How does that impact gender relations? How will water access help conditions in the area?” said Mascarenhas. “What captured my interest is this model. They’re not invoking a western model of development, but trying to facilitate the development of local technologies for long term stability and sustainability.”

Mascarenhas is a good candidate for the job. His current research focuses on water and food security and the impacts of climate change in subsistent communities in Africa and South Asia. In a previous study, he chronicled a similar project in the village of Bhiwadi, West Rajasthan, India.

There Mascarenhas saw how a project for traditional earthen irrigation systems (called paals) led to greater gender equality as women – freed from the daily search for water – were able to cultivate surplus crops, set aside profits, and reinvest in their community.

“They put two rupees a week in a community box. They collect the money and meet weekly to talk about local conditions,” Mascarenhas said. The women may use the community savings to buy calcium for poorly growing crops. They may make a small loan to a neighbor. If someone gets sick, they may pay for treatment. “Health insurance is generated out of access to water.”

In India, earthen dikes are used for irrigation.

In India, earthen dikes are used for irrigation.