Drought and extreme water scarcity throughout the world can fuel conflict that hampers growth, human health, and prosperity, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. This is exacerbated in vulnerable communities, particularly rural communities with under-developed infrastructure and limited social services.

Alan Zarychta, an assistant professor of the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, has received a $5,000 Junior Faculty Research Award that could yield new insights into water management in developing countries. He will study a community-based intervention aiming to help local water councils manage their scarce resources more equitably and sustainably. His research will take place in several communities on the Honduras-El Salvador border in the state of Intibucá.

Zarychta has previously published on governance reforms and decentralization within the Honduran health sector. He also has extensive field-research experience in Honduras. He expects his new project to generate results of interest to community leaders and policymakers.

“The question guiding my overarching research agenda is why some local governance systems in developing countries perform better than others,” Zarychta said. More broadly, he noted, “this area of research is of immediate practical value as countries around the world struggle to create policies for effectively administering rural water systems and improving community health.”

The Honduras-El Salvador border is important to study for three reasons, Zarychta said. First, the communities in that area face persistent drought because they are situated in Central America’s “Dry Corridor.”

Second, area residents continue to deal with the aftermath of the 1969 Soccer War, which Honduras and El Salvador briefly fought over migration and land policy while their national teams competed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. The conflict eventually led to a territorial dispute that was resolved by the International Court of Justice in 1992.

And third, although a chronically underserved area, local organizations such as the Central Committee for Water and Integral Development in Intibucá (COCEPRADII) are experimenting with reforms to address water-related governance challenges. Zarychta and his collaborators—Jami Nelson-Nuñez of the University of New Mexico and Tara Grillos of Purdue University—will work locally with COCEPRADII on the project. COCEPRADII has nearly 30 years of experience helping to organize communities to address water and development problems in Intibucá.

Nelson-Nuñez specializes in assessing the challenges of development and extending basic services to the poor in developing contexts, particular in terms of water and sanitation. Grillos has expertise in evaluating how participatory processes influence environmental behavior, collective decision-making, and public goods provision.

With funding from UChicago Global, which supports scholarly collaborations around the world, Zarychta and his colleagues have already completed interviews with local stakeholders, multiple site visits, and participated in a workshop with representatives from the majority of the water councils in this region of Honduras during the fall of 2018 and summer of 2019. The researchers are currently fielding their pilot study and expect to develop a proposal for a nationwide version of this project to be conducted across Honduras.

International development organizations have often promoted decentralization as a strategy for improving the delivery of public services, including safe water supplies.

“Decentralization refers to a range of reforms that transfer authority and responsibility for the delivery of public services away from national ministries and toward local entities like municipal governments, non-governmental organizations, and communities themselves,” Zarychta noted. While the structure of governance in developing countries has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, we still have only limited knowledge of the conditions under which these changes can result in more and better services for marginalized populations.”

At the community level, Zarychta and his colleagues are interested in why some groups of citizens are able to act collectively as custodians of their own water resources. Also, whether information produced through water-use monitoring technologies can help shape people’s sense of ownership, and thus how they choose to manage their water resources.

At the municipal level, they plan to focus on why some public officials are more active than others in water and sanitation development. The researchers further seek to learn why some officials are held accountable for success while others are not in the water sector, which historically has been community-driven in this region of Honduras.

The project also seeks to expand the limited view that rural water challenges in developing countries are mainly technical or that they reside solely at the community level, Zarychta said. “Instead, we aim to explore how rural water is one of many services that citizens can demand from their elected officials, and what factors help communities organize and act in this domain.” –– Steve Koppes

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