Charlotte MacAlister, hydrologist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and team leader for the Nile BDC project on ‘Assessing and anticipating the consequences of innovation in rainwater management systems‘ left Ethiopia in late January. She will start working for Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

In this interview she shares some views on her involvement in the Nile BDC , her perspective on relative successes and challenges for her work in NBDC and some advice for the final year of the project.

What range of activities have you been involved in?

I joined IWMI in Ethiopia in 2010 and started in the week of the NBDC inception meeting.

I have been involved in the program management of the ‘Nile 4’ project and generally in basin scale water resource and hydrological impact modelling. More specifically, I have been working on training and capacity building (both internally and externally), spatial analysis and modelling, the development of water resource management tools and the generation of a data archive for the Nile Basin.

What has been successful / what are you most proud of?

Quite a few things worked well:

  • Some innovations in the application of global climate data sets.
  • The distribution of free climate data for any user (not restricted to the NBDC), i.e. with open access data sets available on the web.
  • The development of high quality, robust hydrological models of the Blue Nile using real data.
  • We have built strong linkages with local research partners (e.g. the Universities of Bahir Dar, Ambo, Arba Minch) and with governmental agencies (Abay basin authorities, Tana river basin organization, Beles river basin organization, the Ministry of Water and Energy).
  • The training and support of master students who graduated. Over the course of my involvement, we had six MSc students graduate, supported by the program.
  • Initiating the spatial analysis and modeling (SAM) topic working group for cross-basin learning.

What has been most challenging, why?

The technical challenges of modelling large and mostly ungauged basins (no rain /flow or sediment gauge) meant that building the model was difficult: How can you assess impact without data?

After we set up our models, we faced another challenge: the general lack of understanding about different interventions. We have estimates and guesses about what intervention might work where but we don’t really have any measure of impact and we cannot easily use modelling effectively for that reason. What we actually need is experimenting on catchment with different practices to find out what the physical impact of interventions will be – before and after. There is no way to get around that.

As a result of the above, another challenge was the lack of any direct impact by which we could monitor change. We are expected to assess impact without implementing any intervention. If I were to do this by myself I would start with engaging on the one hand a community that wants to make changes and on the other hand another one that does not want to make changes. Over five years I would then have time to see changes and assess impact. When your job is to quantify impact, it is difficult to work in these conditions and qualitative approaches are not enough. People in the Ministry of Water and Energy want real evidence of impact, at least within a range, to see if a practice can be scaled up.

Finally, what was also challenging was the way the project was structured: Splitting the NBDC across scales rather than themes (e.g. hydrology, economics etc.) made the project organization somewhat cumbersome.

What lessons learned will you use or build upon in your next job?

First and foremost, in a project, engaging with key partners in communities and among governmental agencies from the design of the project and at the stage of defining project outcomes is key to success.

Another lesson is that we are not that much closer to appreciating and valuing each others’ perspective between social scientists and biophysical scientists.

However, I want to continue using and promoting the tools we developed; I would like to keep some relation with the SAM group. A lot of people are working on similar issues around the world. Why not share learning across them and across communities? Our lessons don’t have to be  restricted to the different Basin Development Challenges, they can also benefit communities.

Where are you headed? Will you keep working (in some capacity) with the NBDC?

I’m going to be working as senior program officer at the water and climate change division of IDRC. I will be working on water and climate change projects in Southern Africa and South Asia. It is unlikely that I will continue collaboration with the NBDC.

Any advice to the NBDC for the final year?

Focus on what is working now and on the productive relationships that have been developed. Do not be afraid to drop activities.