Inside Rensselaer
* Sociologist Explores Social Relationships to Water in Underdeveloped Countries
Michael Mascarenhas is on a two-week research expedition in Rwanda. Mascarenhas has volunteered his services on a survey of current conditions in the Rulindo district of Rwanda. Photo Credit: Water For People

Sociologist Explores Social Relationships to Water in Underdeveloped Countries
Michael Mascarenhas is currently in Rwanda working on a rural water development project. But Mascarenhas, an assistant professor of science and technology studies, is not an engineer. He is a sociologist, and his interest lies in the approach of project organizers “Water For People.”

“The entire first phase of the project is collecting baseline data on the current conditions: 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 has had similar experience in water development projects in the village of Bhiwadi, West Rajasthan, India, where he worked with Sir Syed Trust, a local non-government organization that takes pains to suit its projects to the

“Over the long term, they want to introduce capacity that enhances the community,” Mascarenhas said.

While in Rwanda, Professor Mascarenhas is writing for The New York Times “Scientists At Work” blog.
Follow him at

In India, 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 Rwanda, Mascarenhas is working to improve surveys used to establish baseline conditions and inform project organizers and government leaders. Water For People administers surveys on a household, community, and regional level.

“My work is to make that survey better; to observe these communities and ask local farmers and villagers more in-depth questions about their relationship to water,” said Mascarenhas, who is spending two weeks in the country. “There may be areas where the survey isn’t capturing data that’s relevant to the communities. I think I’m one of the first sociologists to be asked to do this work.”

Mascarenhas said the social relationship to land and water is the focus of his work, and is a topic increasingly represented in development literature. It is particularly important, he argues, in a rapidly changing and increasingly unpredictable climate.

“If, as academics, we can show these connections, we can move our own thinking about the undeveloped world,” Mascarenhas said. “We think of them as helpless, uncivilized, unaware; we need to change our thinking if we’re going to understand them and the environmental problems they face.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 12, August 27, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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