June 1, 2020
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Sabbatical-prize winner presents research

By Brenden Edgeworth
Correspondent

Bender’s book details the global water scarcity crisis (Miguel Gonzalez / Photo Editor).

In an effort to expose the severity of water management and scarcity issues around the world, an associate professor of history a the College discussed his research on March 27 in the Education Building Room 212.

Matthew Bender was the recipient of the 2016-2017 Gitenstein-Hart Sabbatical Prize. This award helped him gain the support needed to finalize his book, “Water Brings No Harm: Management Knowledge and the Struggle for the Waters of Kilimanjaro.”

After an introduction from William W. Keep, the interim provost and vice president of academic affairs, Bender reflected on the origin of his interest in the subject of water scarcity and management. Having gone to England on a study-abroad program, he became interested in former areas of the British Empire, specifically Kenya.

“After I came back home, I went to Kenya in order to collect research,” Bender said. “I found it to be a life-changing experience that challenged my perceptions of the region, and I became drawn to the topic of African history.”

Bender explained how his research brought the issue of the global water scarcity crisis to his attention, especially in Africa. Bender stressed how the issue of water scarcities and contaminants, shown through both the drought in California and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues surrounding water around the globe and they are still being underestimated. With these observations in mind, he began to research which actions can be taken to alleviate the growing concern.

“Water scarcity is defined as a region having insufficient economic resources to bring clean and reliable water to its people,” Bender said. “This is something that goes far beyond Africa. The recent drought in California is a notable example. I eventually came to the consideration about what can past water-management methods teach us.”

In order to research the issue further, Bender traveled to the Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania, where he met with and observed the Chagga tribe. While this was not his first visit Africa, this was his first experience with people of that region and he noticed how seclusive and cautious the Chagga people were in protecting their land, something he pointed out as being much different from his home in the Midwest. He shared how important it was for him to accommodate for the drastic cultural differences he shared with the tribe in order to conduct his research.

“I was an outsider in many ways,” he said. “I do what I can to make people as comfortable with me as possible.”

Bender explained the tribe’s interaction with and use of the water, to which he referred as the “waterscape,” and how they have managed to avoid a water scarcity crisis for so long. The waterscape was handled using a system of water management that utilized a wide range of knowledge and expertise, namely a system of irrigation canals that utilized the geography of the area, which allowed the region to have a steady and reliable water supply.

“The waterscape has been hugely influential in shaping the identity, relations and beliefs of the Chagga people in the region,” Bender said. “The tribe utilized irrigation canals they referred to as ‘mifongo,’ and the women were considered to have the most knowledge of where to find water in the region.”

After Bender concluded his presentation, the audience followed the lecture with applause and commendation. Overall, Bender’s lecture provided insight as to what can be done to address the growing issue of water scarcity throughout the world, which was effectively indicated in one of Bender’s closing remarks.

“Water scarcity is something that will continue to be an issue unless we address it,” Bender said. “In order to help protect the future, sometimes you have to learn from the past.”

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