Life after UPGro: an interview with Early Career Researcher, Shabana Abbas

SHABANA-3The UPGro programme is an amazing opportunity for young researchers to get experience at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary research that is focused on tackling poverty.

We caught up with Shabana Abbas, who was part of the T-GroUP project and is second author on a new UPGro paper entitled:The emancipatory promise of participatory water governance for the urban poor: Reflections on the transition management approach in the cities of Dodowa, Ghana and Arusha, Tanzania.

UPGro: Where are you from and how did you get involved in UPGro?

SA: I am from Pakistan. I got involved in UPGro in 2015, when I was pursuing my MSc at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands.

UPGro: What research activities did you do as part of the T-GroUP project?

SA: I was offered the opportunity to undertake my masters research under the T-GroUP project, one of the consortium projects of UPGro. My research was about urban water supply and groundwater governance in Arusha city in Tanzania. I took a multi-scale approach and collected mostly qualitative data through in-depth interviews at ward, city and at the basin level.

Some of the key actors that I interviewed were residents from six different wards (lowest administration units within the city), Ward administrators, employees of the Arusha Urban Water Supply and Sanitation Authority, Arusha City Council and of the Pangani Basin Water Board. I also interviewed selected industrial/commercial users of groundwater such as bottled water companies, breweries etc. Moreover, I interviewed drilling companies operating in the city.

Through all my research activities including document analysis, I aimed to understand who is using groundwater, where, why and what does it say about the overall use of groundwater in Arusha. I tried to explore how this use is governed (if) for both environmental and social needs.

UPGro: What were your highlights of being part of the UPGro programme?

SA: For me there were three things:

Firstly, the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from different institutes/universities such as the team at IHE Delft, Netherlands, Dr. Maryam Nastar (Lund University, Sweden) & Dr. Hans Komakech (Nelson Mandela Institute, Arusha, Tanzania), who are all part of the T-GroUP.

Secondly, the entire experience of living in Arusha for three months with two other IHE students, also working under the project. All three of us looked at different aspects of groundwater in Arusha. I enjoyed the process of finding out new details every day and discussing/comparing these with the fellow researchers.

Finally,  the chance to work with Dr. Michelle Kooy & Dr. Margreet Zwarteveen, my supervisors who have inspired me and supported me throughout my research.

UPGro:  What did you take away about the links between groundwater use (or lack of it) and poverty? 

SA: There are two sides to it:

Firstly, most of the boreholes and wells in the areas I visited were mostly owned by people from higher socio-economic class and that prices that they charged to other households (mostly to ones who could not afford to have their own wells and boreholes) varied and were unregulated.  This makes me wonder if groundwater is really for the urban poor if they have to spend quite some amount on it?

Secondly, I found the higher concentration of fluoride in groundwater in Arusha limits its use for non-potable uses only. This means that if groundwater supplied at fair price to the poor can actually lessen their overall expenses on water. . I learned that groundwater plays a big role in the different household water supply combinations. For instance, in the six different areas of the city, people (both from high and low socio-economicbackground) used 28 different household water supply combinations and about 50% of these included water from boreholes and wells.

UPGro: What did you do next, and where are you now?

SA: After graduation, I joined Aqua for All in the Hague, Netherlands. Here, I work on a water innovation programme (VIA Water) that supports innovations addressing urban water & sanitation challenges in seven countries in Africa. One of the key areas of innovation that we support is for ‘sustainable use of groundwater resources’ and we have some interesting innovations being piloted in these countries. You can find out more about these projects here: www.viawater.nl/projects

Then in my spare time (!) I am President of the Water Youth Network and lead the Advisory Board. I am also one of the Junior Global Advisory Panel members for Oxford University’s REACH programme.

UPGro: How did being part of the UPGro T-GroUP project help you, or steer you in new directions?

SA:  Prior to my masters, I worked on rural water supply projects in the north of Pakistan. There, water was mostly sourced from springs. Participation in T-GroUP allowed me for the first time to study groundwater in detail. I was able to see what groundwater means for urban water supply in Arusha and in other African cities.It was all very new for me. I was quickly able to find out how serious the issue of groundwater governance is in many developing countries.  My research in Arusha made me very curious and interested in water issues in Africa. It also motivated me to take on the job I am doing at the moment.

UPGro: What advice would you give to other young people who would like to get involved in African water issues?

SA: Go out there with an open mind; Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘why?’ questions and remain critical.

UPGro: What can programmes like UPGro do to support young researchers and young professionals in their careers?

SA: Offer more opportunities to young researchers to share their  work through webinars and other mediums. Moreover, after students finish their research work, offer them some sort of fellowship for translating their work into knowledge products for wider/non-academic audiences.

UPGro:  Finally, what changes would you like to see in the way that groundwater is managed across Africa?

SA: First, I would like that groundwater be recognized as an essential resource that needs to be governed in a socially equitable and ecologically sustainable way.

And second, I would like that local actors take responsibility of ensuring that groundwater is not overexploited. They should make efforts to utilize the UPGro/other research work and see how policy level changes on groundwater can be informed by that.

You can download Shabana’s MSc thesis presentation here.

Are you a Young Water Professional or Researcher with a good experience to share or would like to find out how to the take the next step in your career? Join the new Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) Young Professionals Network

[photo credit: S.Abbas]