Courtesy of Cornell University

Isabella Culotta '22 (center) interviewing local residents at Nepal.

October 21, 2018

Cornell Freshman Helps Empower Nepalese Women With Irrigation Project

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Promoting women’s empowerment in the developing world is no easy task, but a Cornell freshman has an idea: encourage women to take control over their water systems.

Isabella Culotta ’22, who worked in Saptari District of Nepal in 2017 with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said it’s hard to achieve women empowerment in some less developed areas through education only. Instead, she and her team chose to do so with financial incentives by offering discounts to households who buy solar irrigation pumps — used to water the rice paddies, vegetable and lentil fields — under the name of the woman in the family.

“It’s difficult to just teach them about empowerment. Sometimes, it’s more effective when [people] are shown the monetary benefits of female empowerment,” Culotta told The Sun. To receive the discount, families would also have to “transfer [the ownership of] the land under the woman’s name.”

As urbanization takes place around the world, women compose the majority of farmers in the world, Culotta said. However, she said that despite the amount of work they put in to support their family and food supplies, their life “are much more constrained comparing to those of men’s.”

Although it is hard to quantitatively show the progress that the project has produced, Culotta said that, on average, households in the pilot region that bought the solar pumps turned out to be wealthier than those who didn’t.

Culotta started working with the ICIMOD in 2017 after she was selected for the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, during which high school students from around the world gather to discuss food security and policy with agricultural experts from around the world.

“Learning about the world’s numerous agricultural practices directly from their practitioners is incredibly important to whichever agriculture-related field one is pursuing. Before we can take it to the farmer, we must understand their wants and needs,” Culotta said in an interview with Cornell Chronicle.

On Thursday, Culotta’s work in Nepal earned her the 2018 Elaine Szymoniak Award at the World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony. A prospective international agriculture and rural development major, Culotta said she hopes to conduct more scientific and quantitative research in relevant fields in the future.

“I’m not quite decided about what projects I want to take on in the future, but I do hope to conduct more in-field research and explore more fields in addition to gender empowerment,” Culotta said. “That said, I’m still very invested in our project in Nepal and hopefully it will bring changes to those areas.”

Despite the project’s apparent success — the project has now expanded to more areas in the Himalayas — Culotta conceded that using solar pumps as an incentive for women’s  empowerment is not a catch-all solution for all agricultural regions in the world.

“Groundwater is depleting around the world. It’s often overdrafted, so irrigation is trickier for other places,” Culotta told The Sun. “The Himalayas and the eastern Terais of Nepal are kind of a unique case. Because of global warming and the mountain snow melting, groundwater is not scarce in those regions.”