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By Alex Edwards, College of Arts and Sciences Writing Intern
University of Wyoming students Ryan Anderson of Cheyenne and Jason Edwards of Spicewood, Texas, experienced life in a new culture and gained valuable research skills while working on a water management research project in Ethiopia.
Anderson, a master's degree student in the Department of Geography, and Edwards, a doctoral student in the Program in Ecology, last summer accompanied Department of Geography Associate Professor Steve Prager on a research project in Ethiopia's Blue Nile Basin. The three studied how social interactions contribute to the Ethiopian people's relationship with the environment.
After he gave a talk on related research at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Prager was invited to work on a collaborative resource management project with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The institute also funded Anderson and Edwards' research in Ethiopia.
Using survey approaches and structured questionnaires, the work treats humans and the environment as a single system, Prager says.
"It's one way of looking at natural resource issues and social issues simultaneously," he says.
Anderson says the research is important because of its interdisciplinary component.
"We are acknowledging the ecological side of things, but also the social side," Anderson says. "The two factors are intricately interwoven, and we want to see the whole picture to hopefully improve living conditions in the rural areas."
Social networks, Prager says, can be defined as a set of individuals tied to one another through some common type of relationship or interaction. He notes the difference between these social networks and social media networks.
"These relationships may be familial, friendships, professional, through church, and so forth," Prager says. "I am not looking at social networks in the context of social media such as Facebook."
The Blue Nile Basin ultimately feeds a large part of the Nile River. Prager and his colleagues used social-ecological networks to understand water management processes from a rural community's perspective.
"Researching in the rural areas was incredible. People would invite us into their homes, and we ate traditional food. The cattle would be inside the house with us, inside the little mud hut," Anderson says. "Being able to see things from various perspectives, by getting to know people from a different culture, opened up a new way of thinking."
Communities in Ethiopia, both urban and rural, are highly disrupted by external pressures that affect their day-to-day livelihoods, Prager says. Challenges come in many forms, such as disruption to the food supply due to inadequate precipitation. However, he says challenges often result in positive outcomes, such as better methods to implement water management strategies.
"In water management research, we find that there are strong ties both within the local community, as well as to external individuals," Prager said. "This diversity of ties makes the community more resilient toward outside factors because they are inclined to help one another. But also, they benefit from the infusion of new ideas, information and technical support from outside the community."
Prager is working to further advance research in this area and developing ways to effectively return the results to the communities. He says hands-on research experience, especially in a new culture, strengthens the learning for UW students.
"Being able to work abroad, and to experience another culture to see how other people work and survive, ultimately gives the students new perspectives on life," he says.
The research opportunities provided by this project illustrate how UW students turn their interests into careers.
"It is the kind of work that cannot be done without a lot of people, including students at the Addis Ababa University campus and UW students," Prager says. "Increasingly, we are living in an international society and, to give students a new perspective through our research project, is pretty enlightening."