Cydney Seigerman wears black glasses and smiles above a background of hills, buildings and shoreline.

What it means to be a researcher: Water science and community connections in rural Brazil

Plenty of scientists leave their comfort zone for research, but few relocate to another continent— anthropology graduate student Cydney Seigerman has done it twice. In 2014, they worked as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in Madrid, Spain. Today, they live in the small city of Quixeramobim in Ceará, Brazil, and have been working there since August 2021. Seigerman is a PhD candidate in the ICON program whose research focuses on the sociopolitical and ecological aspects of water security.

Two people with helmets sitting on a white motorcycle on the porch of a house.
Seigerman accompanies Kim do Sindicato, the former director and current president of the Rural Workers’ Union of Quixeramobim, on a day of community visits. Through collaboration with him and others at the Union, Seigerman was able to get in contact with many of the communities that are participating in their survey work. [February 2022, Cachoerinha, Quixeramobim, Ceará. Photo Credit: Rubinha Bento]

For one facet of their research, Seigerman (in collaboration with the State Water Resources Company, Cogerh) carries out evaporation rate studies in two important reservoirs for local water supply. They are also conducting an in-depth household survey: Seigerman and their team of local undergraduate students and researchers from the State Meteorological and Water Resources Institute, Funceme, interview community members in Ceará about how water is used, how scarcity is dealt with, and how the politics of water impact their livelihoods. This survey contributes to the Household Water Insecurity Experience Research Coordination Network (HWISE-RCN).

Respect is a fundamental value of Seigerman’s work. In each of the 52 communities where the survey is being conducted, Seigerman reached out to a community leader or health agent to explain the project and schedule a visit. The families with whom the team collaborate are overwhelmingly welcoming and generous with their time and knowledge, but are at times hesitant, initially doubting that they will be able to answer the survey.

Seigerman emphasizes that those living in rural communities know more about their water use than anyone else. “People are experts in their own lives,” they said, “and you have to respect that people know their own lives better than anyone else.”

Two people standing together in the blue water of a reservoir, with the water reaching mid-thigh. To the left are four white frames (two with an aluminum foil tray and two with a clear plastic tray) tied together to make a square and secured to a ruler used to measure the water level of the reservoir. On top of the ruler is a white weather station.
Evandro, a technician at the State Water Resources Management Company, Cogerh, and Seigerman carry out preliminary evaporation studies in the Reservoir “Açude Novo” in Maraqueta, a federal settlement in Quixeramobim, Ceará. With the help of Cogerh, Seigerman is currently carrying out evaporation studies in two reservoirs key for supplying water to rural communities and cities throughout the region. [December 2021, Maraquetá, Quixeramobim, Ceará. Photo credit: Ivo Medeiros]

The traditional research process is somewhat removed from the real world. A project like this could easily be done quickly and impersonally, the data examined back in the United States- but Seigerman’s goal for their research is deeper than that.

“The objective of research in itself isn’t just to have, you know, a nice graph that quantifies what water security is,” Seigerman explained— although they acknowledge that this type of communication is also vital. “But a fundamental aspect of my research is to really make connections with all the local families and individuals with whom I’m working.”

Seigerman has seemingly become quite at home in Quixeramobim. They visited Ceará for the first time for preliminary research back in 2018 on another Spencer Grant. “That year, I spoke five words of Portuguese when I arrived,” Seigerman laughed. They have now been living abroad continuously for over a year and are comfortable in both the language and the municipality. “I have three households in three different communities where I’m now considered part of the family, and that is irreplaceable in terms of experiences.”

A woman in a pink skirt and gray top secures a pink cloth over a 20L water bottle, as a man in a purple polo shirt and camouflage pants pours water from a black bucket into the bottle. They are in front of a round, white cistern with an angled top, which has a rectangular hole from which water is retrieved from the cistern. The ground is brown dirt with some small patches of grass.
In Mearim, Quixeramobim, a couple works together to filter rainwater stored in a cistern through a cloth (the process of “coando a água”), as a treatment method before using this water for drinking and cooking. In their first round of survey collection, Seigerman found that the majority of families use this method to remove particulates from rainwater before consumption. [October 2022, Mearim, Quixeramobim, Ceará]

Seigerman has also explored a thread of political ecology through this research, discussing the ethics of “what it means to be a researcher and what it means to be a foreigner.” They described the political relationships that underly water resources, especially in rural areas, and how their research relates. Most of the families in Quixeramobim live at or below the poverty line, where the main source of income is a government program providing households with 600 reais per month (about $120 USD).

Seigerman has found firsthand the importance of “understanding that no research is neutral, and that everything is about political relationships, regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish.” They are using their time not just to work in the community, but to embrace it: “My overall goal is to value each relationship that I have and make here during my research.”

Three rows of people look at the camera, the majority holding up a blue certificate from the cistern informational course. The front row has six people: four people kneeling on the ground, with one person on each side standing up. The second row has six people standing up. The back row has seven people, who are slightly hidden by the second row. In the background, there are two houses with white walls and ceramic tile roofs and one house with a yellow wall.
Seigerman, representatives from the Antônio Conselheiro Institute (IAC, a local NGO) members of Cachoerinha, a local community in Quixeramobim, commemorate the completion of the two-day course required to receive a drinking water cistern through a program organized by IAC with government funding. In addition to teaching families how to take care of their cistern, the course challenges participants to think critically about social issues, including the politicization of water resources, gender roles and food security. [April 2022, Cachoerinha, Quixeramobimm, Ceará. Photo Credit: Rubinha Bento]

Seigerman’s research is funded by Funceme, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and the UGA Graduate School, as well as a 2022 Spencer Grant. The Spencer Grant is an annual award given to graduate students studying freshwater research management and conservation. It is named for the late John Kyle Spencer, an Odum graduate student who was passionate about freshwater research. Seigerman’s research shows not just an interest in freshwater management, but also how this management is applied to real people, and the deep connections researchers have to their study sites.

Story by Olivia Allen. Photos and captions provided by Cydney Seigerman.