Campus / News / February 25, 2009

An investigation in water politics

With the world’s burgeoning population, the availability of its natural resources has become a critical issue. It is the management and distribution of these resources that senior Nora Nelson has chosen to explore for her honors project, an endeavor allowing her to conduct original research.

Nelson’s project explored the various socioeconomic, political, and ecological factors influencing the development of governmental policy in the São Francisco River Basin, found in northeastern Brazil. Located in a region known as the drought polygon, an area frequently threatened by a lack of water, its rate of development is one of the lowest in the world.

Nelson was interested in maintaining a holistic viewpoint while conducting her research. Noting that conservation efforts often concentrate on the larger picture while losing sight of smaller but still important details, she investigated the use of water resources by both corporate powers and indigenous peoples. Examining particularly the evolution of legislation concerning this region, her project looked in detail at the Brazilian government’s efforts to divert water from the river into smaller canals. Although the government argues that it will provide drought relief to the common people, Nelson’s research suggests that it will help only about 4 percent of those who truly need the water, benefiting instead the larger corporations.

A biology and environmental sciences double major, Nelson began developing the idea for her project early in her junior year. While studying abroad in Zanzibar, she conducted research on the acanthaster planci, better known as the crown-of-thorns starfish, and its effects on coral reefs. Zanzibar’s economy depends heavily on fishing, and Nelson explored how the presence of this starfish affected policy decisions in that area. It was this work that solidified her interest in the distribution of water resources within Brazil.

With the help of a Richter grant, Nelson traveled to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, over winter break. In addition to learning about the roles of various governmental agencies involved in creating environmental policy, she was able to visit the river basin itself. Although occasionally experiencing difficulty with translation, as Nelson does not speak Portuguese, she nonetheless received a firsthand view of how the process she studied from afar is carried out.

Advised by Peter Schwartzman, the environmental studies chair, Karen Kampwirth, a professor specializing in Latin American politics, and Dean Bailey, Nelson, who describes herself as a “pretty independent worker,” nonetheless appreciated having a “good support system,” saying she felt that working so closely with others was a helpful learning experience. She did note that a challenge arose from having such a diverse committee of advisors, as there were so many potential directions for her project to take.

Although most of the academic elements of her project will involve fall and winter terms, Nelson’s project really spans an entire year and will, when completed, result in an 80-100 page paper, which she often devotes three to four hours a night to writing. In the upcoming weeks, she will defend her research to outside examiners. Even after this is finished, however, Nelson does not plan to let her work end. Interested in involving herself in the growing field of resource management, especially in developing countries, Nelson does not merely wish to “research for the sake of research,” but instead hopes to someday continue similar work while living abroad.

Katy Sutcliffe

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