Research & Innovation

Dr. Dawn Digrius researches Water Resources Management in Coastal Lowland Ecuador


Dams, great engineering feats to aid in food production, hygiene, electricity, and myriad other modes, inevitably affect realms of politics, the environment, health, and ethics. A multidisciplinary student team from Stevens Institute of Technology is exploring this complex of issues from all angles, in order to better understand the interplay of engineered dams and the history of a people in coastal lowland Ecuador. The project is led by Dr. Dawn Digrius, Assistant Professor of History in the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens.

Without water,
there is no life.

The three-year research project, titled "Sin agua no hay vida: Dams, Development and Agrarian Reform in Coastal Lowland Ecuador, a Socio-historical Approach," investigates the intersection of technology, policy and ethics as it relates to water management and agriculture along the Santa Elena Peninsula in coastal lowland Ecuador. The overall mission of this research project is to examine the social, economic, and political history of water management in the region from the late 19th century to the present. "Sin agua" examines the role of the state in water management projects; U.S.- Latin American relations and their influence on water management policies; the effects of the Alliance for Progress (1961) on local communities, environmental sustainability and water management; and also the ethics of water resources management. The multi-disciplinary project includes graduate and undergraduate students from History, Environmental Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Coastal Engineering, many of whom will travel this summer to Ecuador to conduct research. Though they come from many different fields, the students are united by the common thread of water: the project title translates to "without water, there is no life."

Follow up:

"The project gives students a better understanding of not only how people in developing countries think about water, but also the effect of policy decisions on people far removed from the political and engineering processes," says Dr. Lisa M. Dolling, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. "We are very proud to have Dawn conducting this research, and very excited to learn what the team finds."

"This project provides an opportunity to explore some of the complex issues outlined by bodies such as the World Commission on Dams (2000); calling for a more global focus to water resources management and partnerships between constituencies involved in their development: state, local, corporate," says Dr. Digrius. "Our students, as part of this project, will have opportunities to examine their role in water management, and also to create collaborative relationships with students in Ecuador, thus exposing them to new ways of thinking about the world."

"Dams and Development," the 2000 report of the World Commission on Dams, lays bare the implications of damming streams. Its introduction reads, a "Consider: on this blue planet, less than 2.5% of our water is fresh, less than 33% of fresh water is fluid, less than 1.7% of fluid water runs in streams. And we have been stopping even these. We dammed half our world's rivers at unprecedented rates of one per hour, and at unprecedented scales of over 45,000 dams more than four storeys high."

When you talk
about water,
you talk
about people.

Water management is one of the most important issues facing a world that relies on water for everything from basic survival and food production to massive hydroelectric power creation. "When you talk about water, you talk about people," notes Nadira Najib, who is pursuing a Master's of Engineering degree in Environmental Engineering. "There is a lot of social consciousness among environmental engineers, and this research project demonstrates how engineering activities affect people."

Nadira has seen firsthand the realities of water management. A native of Morocco, she remembers having to walk long distances to get water for her family. "My grandparents didn't have access to drinking water, and they lived 30 minutes from one of the biggest cities in Morocco – Casablanca," Nadira says. "Kids had to skip school to bring water to their families. It was very sad."


Civil Engineering undergraduate Jonathan Rivas, who was born in Ecuador, has witnessed the destructive

force of flooding in his home country, as well as inequity in access to water. "This project is very important, because some Ecuadorians pay very much of money for water and others don't even have access to it," he says. "Water is essential to everyone's lives. It shouldn't be limited." Through the project, Jonathan hopes to better understand the political and social implications of damming rivers, in addition to the engineering considerations that went into the original damming projects.

Students working with Dr. Digrius will design and implement their own research agendas in their respective areas, as part of her research team. Goals for the project are to provide off-campus/international research opportunities for Stevens students, encourage collaborative works with researchers in developing countries, and foster a more global view of the world. In addition, as part of the College of Arts and Letters new Master's Program in "Technology, Policy, and Ethics," graduate students in CAL will now have a vehicle by which to translate what they learn in the classroom into a real-world setting. "The project crosses a lot of boundaries, and there is a lot involved with it, which is why it is so interesting," Dr. Digrius says. "I can take students from all different areas working under this one aspect of water we can find a way to work on something that is interesting, important, and that gives them a sense that they can do research in their field."

Laura Josephson, an Environmental Engineering major, hopes to apply her own learning in Environmental Engineering to conduct and in-depth study of water as a vital resource in Guayaquil. "I want to look into the resources of the village and water management, which is controlled by the state. Water used to be free, and now people have to pay for it." Her technical knowledge of engineering will be supplemented by an understanding of the political and ethical situations that the building of the dam created. Though the dam was originally built as a way to provide water to poorer people, these people are now required to pay for their water, she explains. "Water is such a powerful resource, and everybody needs it to live."

Molly Bennett, a History student, will examine the political and ethical implications of damming by analyzing in-depth oral history interviews with locals and doing archive research on economic policy. "My goal for the project is to get a better grasp of doing research on the historical and cultural end," she says. She hopes to apply the skills in future research.


Dr. Digrius comes to the project with years of experience, having conducted research in the area on and off since 1998. After completing her Ph.D. research in 2007 on the history of paleobotany (fossil plant science), Dr. Digrius returned to Ecuador to assist with the development of an environmental science and sustainability program for her alma mater, Drew University. While working with Dr. Maria Masucci, Professor of Anthropology at Drew, Dr. Digrius realized that there were opportunities for Stevens Institute of Technology students to gain valuable experience in their programs of study, and designed a research project that focused on water resources management and agriculture. "My training in the reconstruction of ancient agricultural systems through paleoethnobotany has afforded me the opportunity to design a research project that encourages transdisciplinary relationships between historians, social scientists, and engineers; creating more collaborative works between the College of Arts & Letters and the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science here at Stevens."

"It's interesting to see how everyone views the problem," Nadira says. "Some see it from a political view, I see it from a more scientific view, and others see it from a health-issues view. I think it's really interesting just to have this combination of people working on the project."

She hopes that this project will give her the tools to help even more people in the future. "I like seeing impacts, even small impacts. Just to see the smile of a child who doesn't have to walk five miles to get water and can instead go to school. This makes me happy. I would like to work more in these nonprofit projects, especially to get people to have access to water."

For more information on this project please contact Dr. Digrius at [email protected].