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Marcus Studies Politics of Water in Madagascar, Kenya

Marcus with group of people in Africa

International Studies’ Richard Marcus knows the United States can learn from Kenya and Madagascar when it comes to water use.

Marcus, who joined the faculty in 2006, is a political scientist who studies political change in Madagascar and the politics of water supply.  He enjoys what he characterizes as a “charmed life” of teaching, scholarship, and consulting for such organizations as the World Bank, UNDP and SwissPeace. He has been conducting research in Madagascar since 1992 and Kenya since 1991. Recently, he has published a number of scholarly articles looking at the politics of water supply in those two places. After several years of field research, he is in the writing stage of a book on the topic. While most of his work has been in Africa, three years ago he won a USDA grant (which was recently renewed) as part of the Southeast Climate Consortium to look at the water politics and policy in Alabama. 

He sees his worlds as separate – but there are exceptions. One forthcoming article compares water use in Kenya and Alabama. “The punch line to the article is that Kenya is both more progressive and progressed in water law than Alabama,” he said. “As a result of historically entrenched water law, Alabama continues to experience droughts even though it is a state with 54 inches of rain every year falling over eight major river basins serving only four and a half million people. How could there possibly be drought? There is drought not because of how much water the state has but because there are serious questions about how that water is governed and managed.”

“States like Alabama need to do two things,” he continued. “They need to push towards increasing the role of riparian regulation and they need to create a more comprehensive water strategy. Kenya started down that path in 1999 and a water act passed in 2002 created the institutions to integrate water governance from the national level to the local level as well as parallel institutions for finance and the movement of water. While there are lots of problems, they are on the right road toward properly governing their resources.”

California’s water use policies leave Marcus cold. “I’d describe it as a disaster,” he said. “I see a movement of American agriculture to countries like Costa Rica and, increasingly, China. The answer lies in finding a way to reduce the disastrous environmental process of moving so much water to agriculture and instead finding ways of moving the agriculture to the water. This can be done through market-based reforms with relatively modest economic subsidies that would be finite in their duration. If California loses its grip on agriculture, it will move elsewhere.”

Marcus’ interest in African water use policies began with his doctoral dissertation on the role environmental institutions have played in helping shape democratic change in Madagascar and Uganda. This was followed by post-docs at Yale in Environmental Studies and Globalization that focused on water politics. He received his B.A. from New York University, his M.A. from UCLA and his Ph.D. in 2000 from the University of Florida.

Marcus began his work in Africa when he spent a year in Kenya for his M.A. His mentor at UCLA suggested that he look across the Mozambique Channel at Madagascar because of his interest in community-based catalysts for political change. “What really got me hooked on Madagascar was research I did on political activism among Malagasy youth groups,” he said. “Since political activism was officially forbidden, these groups declared themselves to be fan clubs of Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee. They donned garb oddly appropriate to their clubs and fought pitched street battles. This was just a surface manifestation of political cleavages common in social movements but it brought me to Madagascar where I learned what an exciting place it is to work.  I left Kenya for a month to go to Antananarivo right at the dawn of the new democratic republic – during the constitutional convention of March 1992 – and I have just kept going back since.” Plus, it helps to speak English, French, Swahili, and Malagasy.

That excitement had its costs, including five bouts with malaria. “When you work in rural areas in Kenya and Madagascar, you get used to having no electricity or running water. You get used to covering significant amounts of ground on foot,” he said. “The last time I had to hike across 90 kilometers (about 56 miles) of Madagascar peninsula, one of the wettest inhabited places on earth, I must have lost 20 pounds in two weeks. In drought-prone areas like Ambovombe, Madagascar, I have learned to eat cactus fruit without cutting my lips. In urban environments there are unique street protocols you need to be aware of; Antananarivo is much safer than Los Angeles but it is important to know what is different about keeping yourself safe. People in Madagascar tend to be impressively savvy on such issues as politics or resources – much more so than in the U.S. More impressive, however, is how people figure out ways to get things done that you and I take for granted despite very challenging economic and physical environments. Like anywhere else, you just need to learn what people there do to thrive and survive.” 

Map of AfricaTravel is an essential part of Marcus’ research. With the help of some grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and others, he has traveled to Madagascar, Kenya, and Israel – where he was a visiting scholar in 2004 – every year since 2003, most years to all three. The result is a pile of interview, focus group, and survey data. He will be in both Madagascar and Kenya this summer despite having completed the primary fieldwork for his book. “I want to be as sure of my facts as I can be,” he said. “Travel overseas means a chance to smell the air and talk to my contacts. I want to make sure I’m still on the right page.”

As a longtime researcher, Marcus has created extensive research networks in East Africa. “When I started working there, I stayed for years at a time. That’s how you learn about language, culture and communication. Local acceptance is critical to the success of the work. You discover customs are not uniform and that they change according to region, sometimes even within a region. One place will have a leadership system based on local kings. Another will have systems based on mayors. How you deal with a local king may be very different from how you deal with a mayor. If you come in with guns blazing, you won’t get much done.”

Marcus’ experience with water use filters into his own life. “I am conscious but not crazy with my family. My family uses a dishwasher but it is always full when we run it,” he laughed. “Our 5-year-old son knows to turn off the faucet when he brushes his teeth. He can’t spell ‘evapotranspiration’ but he understands the idea. Where the average Californian uses 150 gallons a day, maybe we use 100. But on the other hand, compare that with the five liters a day used in Ambovombe, Madagascar. Even the average French household uses less than we do.”