By Jen Moore
Hydrogeological engineers from the Universities of Calgary and Waterloo are going beyond installing water wells and pumps. They’re partnering with public universities in Latin America to help communities manage their own groundwater resources — locally.
As the world’s surface water supplies dry up or become contaminated, groundwater is becoming increasingly crucial for human consumption, agriculture and industry. However, technical knowledge needed to ensure sustainable use of subterranean water resources is often lacking.
In Central America and Bolivia, where most people depend on groundwater, the Central American Water Resource Management Network (CARA) has set up an Applied Master’s programs on the subject, in collaboration with public universities and with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
University of Calgary graduate Brendan Mulligan coordinates CARA’s program at Saint Francis Xavier University, in Sucre, Bolivia, which will graduate its first class of ten students in May 2010. These graduates will be water managers as well as scientists, says Mulligan – “able to look at water from a number of different angles.”
Students in the program learn how to monitor and map groundwater, of course. They also learn about groundwater-related legislation, about the relationship between gender and water and community relation skills. Finally, each student in CARA’s Masters program must carry out an applied research project responding to groundwater management concerns that have been raised by Bolivian municipalities, NGOs, provincial governments and other institutions.
Bolivian Program Director Julio Torrez says the program is helping to promote a new perspective on groundwater. “Before, no one paid much attention to groundwater, unless there was a drought,” he observes. “Once the drought was over, everyone would lose interest again.” As a result, says Torrez, there are lots of Bolivian ‘experts’ on surface water, but few who understand the full dimensions of water resources underground.
From Torrez’ perspective, Saint Francis Xavier’s new Master’s program is accomplishing three aims. It’s helping bolster Bolivian research capacity, broadening water management networks and boosting interest in water issues among young Bolivians. “We anticipate many more applicants for the upcoming session,” Torrez says, “including more young women.” Currently, the Saint Francis Xavier program has only one female student.
CARA’s Master’s students recently made a sufficiently impressive presentation to help reach an agreement with the Japanese Development Agency (JICA), Bolivia’s largest water sector donor. JICA’s close relationships with provincial governments across the country will help the program quickly expand its reach.
But their record is already impressive. With six programs across Central America, CARA has trained over 120 students and some two thousand professionals. As networks expand, this is an initiative destined to promote better management of a vital, but poorly understood resource.