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:

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]

Cultiver les données : comment les agriculteurs éthiopiens récoltent les données pour favoriser leurs semis #60IAH2016

Quel temps va-t-il faire ? Beaucoup de gens se posent la question, mais pour beaucoup d’Éthiopiens la réponse peut faire la différence entre affluence et pauvreté. L’Èthiopie est un pays riche et divers de près de 100 millions d’habitants, 88 langues différentes et une histoire ancienne et remarquable. Ses hauts plateaux sont humides et fertiles lors de la saison des pluies, alors que ses plaines désertiques comptent parmi les endroits les plus arides de la Terre.

Dangila woreda (district) est une zone montagneuse dans le nord ouest du pays avec une population de 160 000 personnes environ répartie sur 900 km2. Bien que la zone recoive 1 600mm de précipitations annuelles, plus de 90% des pluies ont lieu entre mai et octobre. Les agriculteurs, qui dépendent de leurs troupeaux et de leurs cultures pluviales, doivent absolument comprendre et prévoir les variations de précipitations pour assurer leur ubsistance. Les statégies traditionnelles, utilisées depuis des millénaires, sont menacées par les effets conjugués des changements climatiques, de la dégradation des sols et de la croissance démographique.

Le manque de données sur les précipitations, le débit des eaux de surface et le niveau des eaux souterraines empêche de savoir exactement ce qui passe actuellement et ce qui pourrait arriver ensuite. Dans la majeure partie de l’Afrique sub-saharienne, les gouvernements n’ont pas assez investi dans le suivi-évaluation des conditions environnementales, qui décline et rend de plus en plus difficile la gestion des ressources en eau.

Et si c’étaient ceux qui ont le plus à gagner d’une compréhension et d’une gestion améliorée des ressources en eau qui pilotaient la collecte des données ? Les communautés sont-elles capables de collecter des données fiables sur la météo, les riviéres et les eaux souterraines ? C’est ce qu’explore une équipe de chercheurs de l’Université de Newcastle au Royaume Uni avec le projet AMGRAF[i] financé par UPGro[1].

Dans une nouvelle publication dans le Journal of Hydrology, David Walker et ses collègues expliquent pourquoi ils pensent que la science citoyenne a un avenir dans les zones rurales d’Èthiopie et au delà :

« Les bénéfices de la participation des communautés aux démarches scientifiques sont progressivement reconnus dans plusieurs disciplines, notamment parce que cela permet au grand public de mieux comprendre la science et de mieux s’approprier les résultats, avec une certaine fierté même. Et cela sert à la fois les individus et les processus de planification locaux. » précise Walker. « Parce qu’il y a si peu de stations de suivi-évaluation officielles, et que les zones à étudier et à gérer sont si vastes, il nous faut penser à d’autres méthodes de collecte des données. »

Le programme de suivi-évaluatio communautaire a démarré en février 2014 et les habitants d’une zone appellée Dangesheta ont été impliqués dans l’implantation de nouvelles jauges pluviométriques et de rivières et dans l’identification des puits adéquats pour le suivi. Cinq puits sont jaugés manuellement tous les deux jours, avec une mesure de la profondeur et du niveau d’eau ; une jauge pluviométrique a été installée dans la métairie d’un résident qui effectuait les relevés quotidiennement à 9h ; deux jauges ont été installées sur les rivières Kilti et Brante et étaient relevés tous les jours à 6h et 18h. Chaque mois, les bénévoles remettaient le registre de leurs relevés au bureau du Dangila woreda district, qui les saisissait dans un fichier excel et les envoyait ensuite à l’équipe de recherche.

Mais ces données sont-elles fiables ? Pour David et ses collègues, c’était une question déterminante pour le succès ou l’échec du projet. La validation des données est toujours un défi, qui souffre généralement de deux types d’erreurs :

Les erreurs d’échantillonage proviennent de la variabilité des pluies, du débit des eaux de surface et du niveau des eaux souterraines dans le temps et dans l’espace. Ce type d’erreur augmente avec les précipitations et diminue avec une plus grande densité de jauges. Le défi dans les zones tropicales comme l’Éthiopie c’est que la plupart de la pluie tombe sous la forme d’orages diluviens, qui peuvent être assez courts et petits et donc faciles à rater, ou bien seulement partiellement relevés, si la densité des stations météo est faible.

Le deuxième type d’erreurs sont les erreurs d’observation, qui peuvent avoir plusieurs causes : des vents forts renversant la jauge, l’évaporation vidant la jauge, et bien sûr l’observateur qui peut ne pas  lire la jauge  correctement ou bien mal transcrire ses observations.

« C’est compliqué de relever les erreurs mais c’est possible, surtout en faisant des comparaisons statistiques avec les résultats de stations météo et d’autres sources bien établies» confie Walker. « Nous constatons que les données collectées par les communautés sont plus fiables que celles collectées par télédétection satellite. »

Nous espérons que cette approche prometteuse sera davantage soutenue et sera utilisée plus largement, mais quels sont les secrets et les défis d’une participation communautaire réussie ?


« Les gens sont au cœur du processus, donc la sélection des bénévoles est une étape fondamentale pour éviter la falsification des données ou le vandalisme » conclut Walker. « Les retours sur les résultats sont aussi absolument cruciaux: les données peuvent être présentées et analysées avec la communauté lors d’ateliers ou de réunions collectives, leur permettant ainsi de prendre des décisions sur la meilleure utilisation des précipitations, des eaux de surface et des eaux souterraines pour garantir l’approvisionnement en eau de leurs fermes et de leurs familles. »

Ces travaux de recherche se poursuivent grâce à une bourse[2] de REACH : Améliorer la sécurité hydrique pour les populations pauvres, un programme piloté par l’Université d’Oxford.

[1]               « UPGro – Libérer le potentiel des eaux souterraines pour les populations pauvres » est un programme de recherche international de 7 ans (2013-2019) qui est co-financé par le Département pour le développement international (DFID) du Royaume Uni, le Conseil de Recherche pour l’environnement naturel (NERC) et le Conseil de Recherche Economique et Sociale (ESRC). Il vise à renforcer et améliorer les données factuelles sur la disponibilité et la gestion des eaux souterraines en Afrique Sub-Saharienne (ASS), afin de permettre aux pays en développement de la région et à leurs partenaires d’utiliser ces eaux souterraines de façon durable au bénéfice des populations pauvres. Les projets UPGro sont interdisciplinaires, liant sciences sociales et sciences naturelles pour relever ce défi.


[i]               AMGRAF: Adaptive Management of GRoundwater for small scale-irrigation and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan AFrica: and

Data farming – how Ethiopian farmers harvest data to help their crops

What’s the weather doing? It’s a question that obsesses many but for many Ethiopians it is question that makes the difference between plenty and destitution.  Ethiopia is a rich and diverse country that is home to around 100 million people, 88 different languages and imbued with long, diverse history. Its highlands are seasonally wet and fertile and its lowland deserts are among the most parched places on Earth.

Dangila woreda, or district, is a hilly area in the north west of the country with a population of around 160,000 people spread across an area of about 900 km2. Although the area receives rainfall at around 1,600mm a year, over 90% of this falls between May and October.  For farmers, who depend on livestock and rainfed crops, understanding and predicting these rains is crucial to their livelihoods. Traditional strategies, which have served for millennia, are coming under threat from new pressures of shifting climate patterns, land degradation and population growth.

Exactly what is happening now and what is likely to happen in the future is uncertain due to the lack of rainfall, river flow and groundwater level data.  Throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa, under-investment by governments has led to a widespread decline in environmental monitoring, and this in turn makes water resources management harder and harder.

But what if those who stood to gain most from better understanding and management of water resources were those leading the data collection? Can communities reliably collect accurate weather, river and groundwater data? This is the question that is being investigated by researchers, led by Newcastle University in the UK through an UPGro-supported[i] project called AMGRAF[ii]).

In a new paper in the Journal of Hydrology[iii], David Walker and his colleagues explain why they think citizen science has a future in rural Ethiopia and beyond:

“The benefits of community involvement in science are being slowly recognised across many fields, in large part because it helps build public understanding of science, ownership and pride in the results, and this can benefit both individuals and local planning processes,” said Walker.  “Because there are so few formal monitoring stations and such large areas that need to be understood and managed, we need to think differently about how data collection can be done.”

The community-based monitoring programme was started in February 2014 and residents of an area called Dangesheta were involved in the siting new rain and river gauges, and identifying wells that were suitable to be monitored.  Five wells are manually dipped every two days, with a deep meter to measure the depth from the ground surface and the water level in the well; a rain gauge was installed in the smallholding of a resident who then took measurements every day at 9am; two river gauge boards were installed in the Kilti and Brante rivers and were monitored daily at 6am and 6pm. Every month, the volunteers would then give their hard copy records to the Dangila woreda government office, who then typed them into an Excel spreadsheet and emailed to the research team.

But is this data any good? For David and his colleagues, this was a critical question that could make or break the whole approach.  The challenges of data validation are substantial, and there are generally two types of error:

Sampling errors come from the variability of rainfall, river flow and groundwater level over time and over area. The sampling error increases with rainfall and decreases with increased gauge density. A challenge in tropical areas, such as Ethiopia, is much of the rain is high-intensity thunderstorms, which can be quite short in duration and small in size, and therefore easy to miss, or only partially record, if the density of monitoring stations is low.

Observational errors are the second type, and can come from a number of things:  wind turbulence, splashing around the gauge, evaporation can affect how much is in the rain gauge, and then the observer might not read the gauge accurately or make a mistake or unclear notation, when writing the measurement down.

“Tracking down errors is tricky, but it can be done, mainly through statistical comparison with established monitoring stations and with each other,” said Walker. “What we found was that the community collected data is more reliable than that gathered through remote sensing instruments from satellites.”

It is hoped that this promising approach can attract further support and be used more widely, but what are the secrets, and challenges, to making community monitoring work?

“People are at the heart of this process and selection of volunteers is crucial to avoid problems with data falsification or vandalism,” concluded Walker.  “Feedback is absolutely vital and through workshops and meetings the data can be presented and analysed with the community so that they can make decisions on how best use the available rainfall, river flows, and groundwater to provide secure sources of water for their farms and their homes.”


Research continues through a research grant[1] from REACH: Improving water security for the poor, a programme led by Oxford University.

Figure 1:


[i] “UPGro – Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor” is a seven-year international research programme (2013-2019) which is jointly funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and in principle the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It focuses on improving the evidence base around groundwater availability and management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enable developing countries and partners in SSA to use groundwater in a sustainable way in order to benefit the poor. UPGro projects are interdisciplinary, linking the social and natural sciences to address this challenge. T

[ii] AMGRAF: Adaptive Management of GRoundwater for small scale-irrigation and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan AFrica: and

[iii] D. Walker et al, “Filling the observational void: Scientific value and quantitative validation of hydrometeorological data from a community-based monitoring programme” Journal of Hydrology 538 (2016) 713-725