Notes from the Field: Lessons by the water, for the water

Notes from the Field: Lessons by the water, for the water McGill University

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November 8, 2007 - Volume 40 Number 06
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > November 8, 2007 > Notes from the Field: Lessons by the water, for the water


Lessons by the water, for the water

Caption follows

Apurva Gollamudi takes in the view of Guyana's magnificent tropical rainforests in the Potaro River Valley.
COURTESY OF Apurva Gollamudi

I have been in the Caribbean for two weeks now, coordinating a short course on the principles of integrated water resources management (IWRM) in Barbados, an island quite rightly called paradise. Despite cherishing the opportunity to work at this dream destination for vacationers (and taking time to scuba dive), it is the next two weeks I am really looking forward to. Guyana awaits—a name that literally means "land of many waters".

Along with Mark Eastman of the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management at Macdonald Campus, and Kailas Narayan, Chief Hydrologist at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), we are here as specialist trainers to deliver a field course on hydrometeorology and water quality. The course is part of a six-year joint project between the Brace Centre and CIMH called the Caribbean Water Initiative (CARIWIN). It was launched in February with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through their University Partnerships in Cooperation and Development (UPCD) program (more details on

The participants were technicians from water resource agencies in Jamaica, Grenada and Guyana, in addition to a small group from native Amerindian communities in Guyana.

About 90 percent of the 800,000-odd Guyanese live under the constant threat of floods. It is a queasy feeling to live at altitudes of about six feet below sea level and cultivate a fertile stretch of coastal plain that is kept "dry" thanks only to Dutch engineers. They built a high earthen dyke in the 19th century to hold back tides from the Atlantic Ocean. An intensive network of canal systems and kokers (sluice gates) built in the late 18th century regulates and conserves floodwaters from the river, for agriculture. There is a huge budget allocation each year to maintain the sea defences and water conservancies every year. Quite the cost just to stay afloat.

Sharing knowledge

One of the principal objectives of CARIWIN is capacity-building in the Caribbean—at regional, national and community levels. Training courses are one of the means to that goal, with courses designed for target groups ranging from senior administrators to engineers to technicians to community water users. A pilot community was identified in each of our partner countries; the one in Guyana is the St. Cuthbert's Amerindian mission located by the Mahaica River.

Rivers offer hope, risk

St. Cuthbert's, we're told, is one of the more accessible Amerindian missions in the country, and while it is only about 100 km from Georgetown, the journey lasts a memorable four hours. After an hour on the road, we set off in two "speedboats" up the Mahaica. Kailas issues a forewarning: "Don't put your finger into the water. The river is home to the pirai and the caiman." The caiman, alligators that can be up to 30 feet long, are found in the interior. We whirred through the still "black waters," which possess a perfect mirror-like sheen until our boat breaks through the surface. It is known as "black water" because of the distinctive colour, which comes from high turbidity levels (due to organics) and high iron content. Both surface and groundwater sources in the region are somewhat acidic with a low pH, posing yet another water quality threat to these disenfranchised communities.

At first look, I am impressed by the facilities at the Amerindian village. They have an arts centre, a primary and secondary school, and a centralized solar powered water supply system. We met with the Toshau (captain) and the school principal, who mentioned that there was a recent hike in diarrhea cases among children, although they weren't sure if it was due to untreated water or poor hygiene. In the general awareness session that followed, Mark Eastman demonstrated a portable multi-parameter water quality probe to secondary school students, giving the few curious ones a hands-on experience. The kit was procured for all the partner countries under CARIWIN and participants at the course were trained in its use.

After cooling off with some coconut water, we headed back to our boat. We got lucky on our ride back, as we spotted a dead croc, red-haired monkeys and Guyana's national bird, the Canje Pheasant. As I reminisce, telling myself that these are still early days, I'm quietly confident that CARIWIN will bring about visible change in the region through the development of community water strategies.

At the community level, training and awareness go hand-in-hand

The course drew to a close with field visits on discharge measurements and water level monitoring. The participants were eager to put their lessons into practice, and it was heartening to see the quietest Amerindian in the group take the lead by crossing the stream over a precariously placed log, velocity meter in hand. In a region where vandalism of equipment is just another risk to live with, such educational exercises are of prime importance not only in getting local communities involved in managing their water but also in safeguarding expensive equipment and precious data. The role that local communities play in this is of immense value.

Our short trip ended before we knew it, but not without an encounter with one of the most spectacular sights in nature, and Guyana’s pride – the Kaieteur Falls in the tropical rainforests, which at 741 ft is the highest single-drop fall in the world

Apurva Gollamudi is a professional associate at the Brace Centre for Water Resources Management at the Macdonald Campus. After graduating in 2006 with a masters in bioresource engineering at McGill, he continued working at the Brace for Professor Chandra Madramootoo, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In his current role, he manages and conducts research on projects in hydrology, water quality, irrigation and crop water requirements.

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