Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Intangibles, unprettiness, risk, randomness, and results

Especially in these days of a drying planet, nothing sounds worse than a dry lakebed does it? And the not-prettiness is amplified by the word "tank," which is what they're called in Sri Lanka. Tank is an adopted word from "tanque," which is how Portuguese  cartographers labeled them on 17th century maps. What am I talking about? The 30,000-odd paradisiacal lakes built by humans in partnership with nature over a 2500 year period. It all took place in Sri Lanka, where I will start a Fulbright next month. 

I have to start my Fulbright a few weeks early, hopefully to beat the monsoon that arrives in the North Central Province like clockwork every October. And it's all for the sake of exploring dry tank beds, something that's barely been done before. I don't know if it's because no one thought of it or that they thought of it and then thought the better of it. It's not a pretty proposition. Sounds dusty, hot, and muddy doesn't it? And all during the most humid days of the year, just before the monsoon breaks. But I hope the exercise will reveal insights into the complex functionality of these ancient, magnificent, sustainable, and all-sustaining bodies of water. 

The idea to explore dry tank beds didn't come from nowhere. In May I spent a week walking through the countryside in Rajarata (the heartland of North Central Province), visiting as many tanks as I could. At that time the tanks were overflowing, their spillways gushing water and the  rice fields below the dams shimmering with the new crop. As I walked the tanks I developed so many questions. Why were the dams shaped convexly, storing the water like open arms? What was the role of  spillways, of sluices, and other features in controlling the water? Were the tanks just storing and distributing water, or were they behaving in a more subtle way, perhaps persuading the water to flow in certain ways? 

It seems to me that the tanks behave subtly indeed. How else can we explain the known facts that certain parts of the tank collect silt, other parts accumulate alkaline water, still others gather salt? If one "simple" body of water can do all of this sorting, then the tanks must be very complex structures.  

The goal of my Fulbright is to study intangible landscape features and to develop questions from them. In the case of the tanks the intangibles that I considered led to one big question: what's at the bottom of the tanks and how does it explain their complex functionality? Searching the literature kindly provided by my friend Chandima Gunadasa, librarian at the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, yielded few results. More was gained through correspondence with Dr. M U A Tennakoon, who directs a UNDP-sponsored village tank rehabilitation project in Rajarata. Then after lengthy correspondence with my colleagues at Rajarata University I was put into contact with Professor Madduma Bandara, who has been studying tank structure and function for decades. It was Professor Bandara who pointed out that dry tank bottoms are poorly studied. His interest piqued, he agreed to join me in the field. 

What started as a random walk through the countryside is turning into a collaborative international research endeavor. No one could have envisioned it because it grew from questions based on observations of the intangible. It's not easy to sell a research proposal based on what might be learned. You're supposed to have a carefully laid-out plan, ready to be executed according to a defined schedule. The Fulbright took a risk when they approved my proposal on landscape intangibles, a proposal that had collected a series of rejections over the past couple of years. I intend to pay them back for their good faith gesture. So, here's to intangibles, their associated randomness and risk, and the very tangible results that can accrue from them. 

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