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.

Rainwater management practices are often promoted with little regard for the site-specific biophysical characteristics and local socio-economic and institutional environments.

To promote rainwater management more successfully, a paradigm change towards promotion of location-specific interventions is needed. Beyond biophysical suitability, successful implementation crucially depends on farmers’ willingness to adopt a practice.

‘Similarity analysis’ is an approach that presents and matches geospatial and other data so successful interventions in a location can be mapped to other locations with similar biophysical, socio-economic and institutional characteristics within a basin. Mapping similarities and differences can help us identify promising locations for technologies and other interventions to be spilled over for wider impact.

The report ‘Similarity analysis for the Blue Nile Basin in the Ethiopian highlands‘ :

  • Presents the available spatial data for the Blue Nile Basin in the Ethiopian highlands.
  • Develops a methodology that allows identifying locations within a landscape that have similar biophysical, infrastructure, socio-economics, and governance characteristics relevant to rainwater management.

Download the technical report

See a list of other Nile Basin Development Challenge outputs

Terraces in Debre Libanos

Terraces - a possible application for spatial analysis and modeling (Photo credit: ILRI/Ewen Le Borgne)

What does hydrological modeling offer when analyzed together with human land and landscape interventions? Where does it lead and how practical can it be? This was the focus of a podcast on spatial analysis and modeling work undertaken mainly in the Nile Basin Development Challenge.

As part of the Challenge Programme for Water and Food, Peter Casier interviewed Catherine Pfeifer, a post-doctoral scientist working for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In this podcast (3’42’’), Catherine explains that, as compared with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis and modeling (SAM) work does not limit itself to being a useful tool – it actually focuses on what is planned with the data collected and how to analyze it for what purpose. In addition, it is not just hydrological modeling but it works in combination with emergent understanding of how human systems define and shape their landscape and land interventions. The combination of biophysical and human perspectives adds the richness to the work of the SAM topic working group.

In practice, this work can prove very useful for predicting the impact of a given landscape intervention to it hydrology. Pfeifer mentions the case of terraces where spatial analysis and modeling helps estimate how terraces might impact water flow and the potential benefits to the farmers in the future (improved productivity, reduced erosion etc.).

In other settings too, spatial analysis and modeling should help inform extension services and farmers about the potential benefits and drawbacks of different interventions for water and land management, placing the work of the CPWF SAM group at the centre of the rationale behind the Challenge Programme for Water and Food.

One of the cross-basin exchange and learning tools used by the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) is ‘Topic Working Groups’ on different issues of interest to all the Basins.

A new Topic Working Group has just been established on Modeling and Spatial Analysis, led by An Notenbaert (ILRI Nairobi) and Charlotte MacAlister (IWMI Addis).

Why the group?

Many modelers and spatial analysts engaged in the Mekong, Ganges, Andes, Volta, Limpopo and Nile basins are grappling with similar issues: how do we get hold of and share quality information, how do we integrate bio-physical and socio-economic data, what are the best methods to fill data gaps and move across scales, how do we link different models and build feed-back loops…?

Informal discussions and ad-hoc data exchange have already added value to the development of conceptual frameworks and the initial implementation of basin level analyses. With a little extra effort and resources, these issues could be taken to the next level. We want to continue to share information, compare methods, examine and critically appraise each other’s work. We therefore propose to establish a Topic Working Group focusing on biophysical and spatial modeling.

The Group will kick-off with a meeting later this year in the Blue Nile. We envision an initial field visit followed by in-depth cross-basin discussions on issues of common interest, possibly with input from invited experts from our wider research and development networks. In this first get together we’ll focus on hydrological models, optimization and spatial analysis. Whilst we don’t intend to streamline approaches across basins, we hope to cross-fertilize and learn from each others’ varied experiences in the different basin contexts.