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College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Mackinac Hall

Water Research Cluster

WATER--Quality, invasive species, climate change, recreation, resource use

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If you would like to join this research cluster or have other questions, please e-mail Associate Dean  Shaily Menon.

Featured project--

Culture and Science in Haiti

Tired but inspired, Peter Wampler (Geology), Azizur Molla (Anthropology), and Rick Rediske (Annis Water Resources Institute) returned to Grand Rapids after a long journey home from a research trip to city and rural areas of Haiti.  The terrain is rugged and travel in the mountains is difficult, but their goal to make interventions in Haiti more effective and sustainable keeps their interdisciplinary research on track and motivation high.

And they have nothing but praise for a graduate student member of their field team, videographer Renato Delos Reyes of the School of Communications, who documented their work on video for the first time.  This video will allow them to bring compelling images of their work in Haiti into the classroom.  The researchers noted with gratitude and admiration Renato's willingness to carry a camera and tripod into areas in which even a road would be a luxury.

Associate Professor of Geology Peter Wampler has been to Haiti on previous trips and has noted the difficult issues surrounding water and sanitation in a place riddled with limestone pathways for microbes from latrines to make their way over considerable distances to water sources used by Haitians.  He also realized that the geology was not the only hurdle that efforts for better sanitation would face.  Currently, most water quality interventions and water resource studies lack cultural and ethnographic context.  While Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and government agencies distributing chlorine tables or providing biosand filtration systems could help in the short term, the poverty of the areas being served meant that maintenance and consistency of use of various measures became a significant factor in the medium and longer term.

It is not easy to ignore a people whose national experience with 75% of the population below the poverty line has given rise to expressions like "Hungry dogs don't play," and "Rich people have food in the morning; poor people struggle to have food at night."  The stakes are high for research which could have a role in preventing cholera outbreaks caused by washing clothing and bathing in creek water others will drink.  Assessment of what is working has the potential to make a huge difference in this land of very little topsoil, where charcoal from felled trees is a main source of income, with a government under-resourced to reach all the people in need, and the reputation for being " a republic of NGOs". 

What was needed was a more interdisciplinary approach to this complex water problem, in particular, better understanding of the nature of the issues where science and culture intersect, and a better understanding of which measures had the best chance of working sustainably.

So in summer 2012, the primary aim of the joint study of the geologist, the anthropologist and the microbiologist, recorded by their student videographer, was to better understand the interactions between cultural perceptions regarding water, to gather water quality data, and to document water treatment interventions. The interdisciplinary approach effectively combines their expertise to better understand behaviors and practices regarding water in Haiti.

Since socioeconomic, geologic, public health, and cultural factors that influence drinking water quality are interrelated in a complex manner, the team spoke to individuals and focus groups  about their water-related practices.  It became clear that while those they spoke to had an understanding of the fact that microbes could harm their health and that their knowledge of intervention strategies like chlorine tablets had grown over the years, there was still a gap in their knowledge of how to use them most appropriately.  They also saw sand filters which were no longer working due to easily fixable maintenance issues.  In short, lack of some additional technical understanding made the efforts to provide these interventions unsustainable. 

With the assistance of a Creole translator, Assistant Professor Azizur Molla was able to interview the well off and the poor, young and old, city dwellers and those of remote interior regions, those who sold goods for a living and those who were subsistence farmers.  Whether Catholic, Voodoo, or Protestant, in Haiti there is a widely held belief of "masters" protecting the water sources, spirits sometimes thought of as having evil attributes who guard the water. Springs don't necessarily flow all year so local people sometimes give offerings of small bottles of alcohol, special sticks or candles to help protect their water source. The team even met with a leaf doctor, a kind of expert in herbal medicine to discuss local practices.

In addition to the intensive ethnographic survey, the team collected and analyzed samples of surface and groundwater sources to determine enteric bacteria levels and other water quality parameters such as turbidity and conductivity.

These water samples which professor and senior research scientist of the Annis Water Resources Institute Rick Rediske collected provide bacterial contamination data for rural Haiti, something rarely available. The scientifically valid analytical techniques and ethnographic methods for this project are readily transferrable to other underdeveloped nations. NGOs and government agencies seeking to address unsafe water are often hampered by misperceptions of water quality, a lack of contamination data, and an incomplete understanding of cultural practices. This project provides contamination and ethnographic data concerning the interaction of water supply source, cultural context, and factors such as sanitation and intervention methods that are so sorely needed. By providing actionable data and recommendations to governments and NGOs in Haiti, as well other underdeveloped countries, the team will help to reduce illness and mortality associated with unsafe water.

They plan to use their study findings and resulting publications to make available information key to providing water systems in underdeveloped countries which are more resilient and sustainable, and to provide guidance to policy makers trying to make the best use of their available funds.

To learn more about this project, see

Peter was moved to help establish the Empowering Haiti through Education Fund, a scholarship that will help support rising stars from Haitian high schools to attend Grand Valley. To learn more about this program, see

Page last modified July 21, 2016