UCR Professor of Anthropology Aids Waterborne Disease Reduction Efforts

By Laila Rashid, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Intern
November 7, 2014

UCR Associate Professor of Anthropology, T.S. Harvey, recently returned from Guatemala, where he, along with an interdisciplinary team, worked directly with locals to help reduce the risk of waterborne disease and analyze the way in which governments and nations manage crises.

Professor Harvey has been working in Guatemala since he was an undergraduate, and while he has worked on a number of different projects, his main focus has always involved language and health—healthcare specifically. Initially, he studied language and healthcare on a micro level, particularly between Maya wellness seekers and healthcare practitioners. Since 2008, there have been cyanobacteria blooms reoccurring annually on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán, which is located in the department of Sololá. While working on doctor-patient communication, the largest bloom occurred in 2009, affecting the towns surrounding Lake Atitlán. As a result, Professor Harvey recognized that the indigenous people were likely at risk, given the scale of the outbreak, and shifted his focus on language and healthcare to the macro level.

“We were interested in what information the indigenous people had been given, and when they were given it,” he said. “How could we provide factual information to them in a speedy fashion so they could make the best decisions to protect their health?” In order to determine precisely how many people were in the affected areas, Professor Harvey and his team traveled around the entire perimeter and located any pumps that were delivering water to the towns to be used directly for drinking water. With the help of an EPA grant and a Fullbright fellowship grant, they proceeded to map people’s perceptions of disease using GPS and GIS technologies.

“We partnered with Guatemala’s counterpart to the EPA, and asked questions reflecting their language and culture that basically assesses what they think about their water. Interestingly, very few people knew where it was coming from.”

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the project was the three principles it was based on—collaboration, education, and participation. “These principles meant we always sought out strictly Guatemalans for the various scientific specialists and participants we used. It was part of the overall project design to put local people in front, so that the face of problem solving would be Guatemalan rather than Western.”

In addition to Lake Atitlán, they worked at a second field site: Laguna Chichoj, located in Alta Verapaz. The lagoon, located nine hours away, contained contaminated water that locals were not directly consuming but being exposed to. In order to reduce exposure and educate the community, they set out to create a solid waste management program, which the locals are currently participating in and should be available online by the end of the year. When asked about the challenges he faced, Professor Harvey stated, “one of the challenges was economic—people frequently point to lack of resources as a reason for not being able to implement watershed or waste management. We were seeking to demonstrate that they had the technical ability, inclination, time, and cooperation to make this happen with their own resources. By making sure that the face of this was Guatemalan, that was what we successfully demonstrated.”

Professor Harvey commented on the encouraging feedback he heard from members of the community, proving that this was not your every day project. “If you came to the meetings, you weren’t going to hear an announcement about how much money was going to come into the community. What you were going to hear was how you could partner with your own neighbors and community to solve your own problems. So thematically, we got more done than we hoped to.”

Professor Harvey plans to take the skills he gained from these experiences and put together a team to address similar issues of clean water in the United States, beginning with the Great Lakes.

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