Thirsty for Solutions
Using education and innovation to tackle drinking water problems
by Chris Swingle
Safe drinking water issues affect vegetable, fruit and cattle farmers in upstate New York, families without plumbing in Africa, women running home businesses in India— and all the rest of us.
In fact, 783 million people worldwide— more than twice the United States population—do not have access to clean water. Reliable drinking water sources are being drained faster than they are being replenished. Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of freshwater use globally; in the United States, about 80 percent of water consumption is for crop irrigation. Americans assume they can always turn on a tap for water, but the nation’s wastewater and drinking water systems are straining to serve a growing population with inadequate infrastructure.
“Almost every day, there’s a jaw that drops open,” says Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Beth Kinne of the students in her global water issues classes. “But knowledge is power and you have to be aware of water issues before you can do something about them.”
Danielle Porter ’10, a religious studies major at HWS, began a two-year term in March as a Peace Corps health extension volunteer in Madagascar, which she says has virtually no safe drinking water. As part of her work, she is teaching residents about safe water storage and how to make water drinkable through filters, boiling, watered-down bleach, or the sun.
On this island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa, about two-thirds of people lack access to a latrine toilet, called a kabone, so people deposit their waste outdoors. “A lot of people don’t realize that if they go to the bathroom 30 meters [about 98 feet] from a water source, that their waste has the potential to seep into that water source,” says Porter.
Contaminated water causes diarrhea, which results in dehydration, which is a leading cause of childhood mortality.
Does education change behavior? Porter has spotted plastic bottles of water on rooftops and along roadsides, indicating solar disinfection. She’s seen wash stations established outside kabones. To reach more people, she is instructing residents chosen by their community to teach others. “It is also useful to give lessons in schools, so that you can reach people while they are still young,” says Porter.
Trust is one obstacle, and habits are hard to change. Also, Porter says, “Not everyone has access to water or the materials needed to build latrines.”
The problem isn’t always clear to citizens, adds Porter. “Just because water looks clean does not mean that it is.”
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Darrin Magee points to a 2008 Associated Press investigation that found medications from birth control pills, antiseizure drugs and antibiotics in U.S. tap water. Only a small amount of a pill is absorbed and the rest passes through to the wastewater system. And water treatment plants don’t remove all of the pharmaceuticals.
The concentrations of medication in tap water were tiny, and utilities insist that the water is safe. But scientists have seen effects on human cells and wildlife and are therefore questioning the long-term effects on health. The EPA has recognized the issue as a growing concern but hasn’t set guidelines for pharmaceuticals in drinking water. “Bottled water isn’t the solution either because it’s less regulated than tap water,” says Magee. “Bottled water and home filtration systems don’t typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals.”
Another usually invisible water issue is the condition of underground water pipes. Water main breaks this year in the United States have canceled school, closed roads and left homes and businesses dry. “The public needs to be more willing to put money into fixing leaky infrastructure,” explains Magee. “We must support regulations that ensure good drinking water.”
When tree roots create cracks in pipes, surface water can infiltrate and spread disease, adds Kinne. Private wells aren’t any less vulnerable, she adds, citing studies of cross-contamination between septic systems and wells. “People are getting sick from their own sewage.”
When you fertilize a lawn or wash your car, the runoff ends up in a river or lake that may be your drinking water supply, Kinne points out. “Like most Americans, the majority of HWS students have never thought about where their water comes from or where their wastewater goes.”
Once they do start thinking about their water sources, students get active. “We’ve had students do internships at wastewater treatment plants, raise funds for water pumps or sanitation infrastructure in developing countries, or pursue honors projects related to ground water management,” Kinne says.
Carrie Davis ’00 got interested in water quality while studying geology and environmental science at HWS. Now she helps protect New York City’s drinking water supply at its source by helping farmers prevent pollution. As the East-of-Hudson region’s agricultural program coordinator for the Watershed Agricultural Council, Davis supervises and assists staff members who identify and evaluate on-farm water quality risks and develop and implement plans to prevent water pollution.
In her region, 68 of the 200-plus known farms have voluntarily enrolled in the WAC program so far, getting technical assistance and funding for improvements to protect water quality. The changes also indirectly maintain or boost farms’ economic viability.
“One farm had a large accumulation of manure about 50 feet from a stream, so potentially polluted runoff entered the water,” says Davis. “After working with WAC, now the farm has a manure compost area on a concrete base, where runoff is directed to a grass filter area, collected and treated. The stream water stays cleaner and the farmer can turn the waste into a valuable soil amendment to use or sell.”
Based on water testing by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Davis says, “Our work is having a positive impact on water quality at its source.”
The council was formed 20 years ago with funding from the NYC DEP to help meet federal mandates to keep pollutants out of the water supply. Because of this work to protect water at its source, New York City’s drinking water is of high quality and the city has a waiver on building a costly filtration plant for the majority of its water supply, says Davis.
Her program also guides farms to test their soil nutrient levels and tailor fertilizer applications to the needs of a crop so that excess isn’t wasted, running off into the water supply. “The work is very rewarding to me in that the water quality improvements are measurable and our efforts benefit farms while we are helping to protect the environment, water quality and ultimately public health,” says Davis.
She recommends all people learn about their watershed and take steps to conserve it. “Once farmland is lost or water quality is degraded, it’s very difficult and costly to reverse.”
Wanjira Mathai ’94 cites the successful protection of New York City’s watershed when promoting her efforts to restore watersheds and improve the water supply in her native Kenya. “It has been done,” says Mathai, who majored in biology at HWS and went on to earn master’s degrees from Emory University in public health and business administration.
The needs are great in Kenya, where 41 percent of people lack access to safe water and 68 percent are without improved sanitation.
Mathai has followed in her mother’s footsteps, dedicating her career to providing leadership to a movement that is managing the improvement of their homeland’s ecosystem. In 1977, the late Wangari Maathai Sc.D. ’94, P’94, P’96 founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) to mobilize communities to plant trees and promote environmental conservation and civic engagement at a time when Kenyan women reported streams were drying up, their food supply was suffering and they had to walk increasing distances to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM works with communities, particularly women, to plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater and restore biodiversity. By compensating women a small token for their commitment, the program has created more than 100,000 jobs. Maathai was also a politician, professor and human rights advocate. In 2004, for her work in sustainable development, democracy and peace, she became the first environmentalist and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded the Colleges’ Elizabeth Blackwell Award in 2008.
Her daughter was GBM’s director of international affairs from 2002 to 2012. The effort has planted more than 51 million trees, and more families now have healthy environments nearby. But, says Wanjira Mathai, the country needs billions of trees to get to the United Nations sustainability recommendation of 10 percent of the land forested. And the stakes are high.
Most water in Kenya flows down from five forested mountains which are suffering from degradation. The results are extreme weather patterns such as droughts, mudslides and flooding, says Mathai. Reforestation allows rainfall to trickle down the branches of trees and slowly filter into underground aquifers, gradually emerging into rivers for drinking water and hydroelectric power.
“We need more hands on deck, a more coordinated effort and we need more resources,” Mathai says. The problems also need a multidisciplinary approach, she adds, including people with skills in creative activism and transformational leadership.
Toward that goal, Mathai is now leading the development of the new Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies, a partnership between GBM and University of Nairobi that will focus less on theory and more on action and practice. The institute has begun a doctoral program focused on stabilizing Kenya by solving forest-related conflicts. The institute is creating master’s degree and international certificate programs. Mathai envisions providing platforms for local farmers, professionals and even children to learn about biodiversity and their role in protecting it.
“More people need to learn how human activity affects the environment and how they can make a difference if they get involved,” Mathai says. “Once people understand, their values begin to change. I’m very optimistic.”
Water issues cross state and national boundaries and are intertwined with other issues. Kinne, formerly a water rights and municipal attorney, teaches about water rights law, water pollution law and the implications of expanded development of oil and shale gas in the eastern United States. Magee teaches about the interconnected issues of water, energy, fossil fuel pollution and climate change.
Water is vital for all thermal power systems, including coal, gas, and nuclear power, which provide the vast majority of the world’s electricity. At the same time, electricity is vital for quenching thirst. “It takes energy to produce water, in the sense of cleaning it and moving it,” Magee explains.
Magee specializes in energy and water in China, where much of the world’s manufacturing now takes place. One result is significant pollution. The energy needed to treat polluted water, in turn, produces more fossil fuel pollution, which contributes to climate change.
“Businesses that rely on water can play an important role in addressing water challenges,” says Rich Delaney P’15, senior vice president for global operations at PepsiCo, a company that needs water to make its beverages and its Frito-Lay and Quaker food products. “Water is scarce in many places PepsiCo operates,” explains Delaney. “It’s unaffordable to transport water very far, so caring for the environment is integral to the company’s success.”
PepsiCo has taken action on conservation, watershed management, sustainable agriculture methods and water stewardship, setting a goal in 2006 to reduce its water use by 20 percent by 2015, which it surpassed in 2011. “We are also working to harvest rainwater from roofs or in catch basins and ponds,” says Delaney. “The result is that our operations in India, for example, have been water-neutral for three years.”
Six of PepsiCo’s top 10 raw materials are agricultural, such as potatoes, corn, oats and citrus fruits. To avoid overwatering crops, PepsiCo worked with the University of Cambridge to develop an effective humidity meter to check soil.
Rich Delaney P'15
In addition to his duties in global operations, Delaney is on the board of the PepsiCo Foundation, which manages PepsiCo’s philanthropic activities. Committed to developing partnerships and programs in underserved regions that provide opportunities for improved health, environment and education, the Foundation achieved its goal to provide safe, sustainable water to three million people. The new target: six million people by 2015. The Foundation has paid for materials and training for entrepreneurs to build water kiosks with filtered or treated water.
“Those water kiosks have ripple effects,” says Delaney. “One woman in India better manages a home business now that she and her children no longer spend hours a day walking to get water. The result is that her children are now able to attend school regularly.”
While progress is being made, the problem grows as the population expands. “The numbers are daunting,” says Delaney. “Everyone needs to do his or her part. If you’re brushing your teeth, turn off the tap. Buy the most water- and energy-efficient appliances. Ask yourself, do you need the greenest lawn on the block?”
American homeowners pay about a penny a gallon for water, which doesn’t match its value. “If water cost $3 a gallon, do you think people would use it differently?” Delaney asks.
Kinne says it’s fine for people to make changes at home to conserve water, like taking shorter showers, and on a local scale these changes may have significant impact. She adds that people can “…make a much bigger global impact by, for example, buying fewer jeans,” —as well as eating less beef and using more fuel-efficient transportation. “Textiles, meat and gasoline take a lot of water to produce,” Kinne explains.
Felipe Estefan '08
Felipe Estefan ’08 is supporting efforts to foster citizen participation in the decisionmaking processes happening in communities around the world—including decisions on how to improve water services, where to build water points, and how to resolve problems stemming from water scarcity.
Just five years out of Hobart, Estefan holds master’s degrees in international relations and public relations from Syracuse University and works on the World Bank Institute’s open government team, which conducts citizen engagement projects in places like Uganda, Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Near Kinshasa, the capital city of DRC, the team determined where new water points should be located by surveying residents about the cost of water and how far they had to walk to get it. The team’s surprising survey method: text messages. Despite having no water or electricity at home, many residents have mobile phones, which they charge at power strips scattered on the ground and connected to generators.
“People will participate if given the opportunity to help determine the future of their communities,” says Estefan, who double majored in international relations and media and society at Hobart. “Using technologies like text messaging or social networking allows us to understand the opinions and needs of a great number of people in a short amount of time. And when we know that, we can respond appropriately.”
The team has worked with mayors who have committed to letting citizens decide how to spend a portion of the municipal budget. Mass text messages invite residents near a particular cell tower to a community meeting to generate project ideas. Citizens vote by text and learn the results—often a water project—via text.
The challenges include trust, especially when citizens have historically been shut out of decision making, and literacy, since text messages require reading. Yet, these more inclusive processes are increasing trust between citizens and government, and ensure that government delivers services to citizens in a more effective way.
The successes include residents seeing results and getting more involved in solving community problems. As trust increases, some poorly funded municipalities have been able to collect more tax revenue, allowing additional projects to improve the community, explains Estefan.
“I’m very excited about the increasing opportunities that emerge when citizens can be part of building a better future for them and for their communities,” he says.
Caroline Spruill '12
Caroline Spruill ’12, another member of the World Bank Institute’s open government team, recently took the lead on publicizing the Jordan Valley Water Forum, an initiative that brings together farmers, government ministers, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders to jointly manage their limited water resources.
Spruill’s role as a communications consultant means she works with the team in Washington D.C. as well as with those in Jordan to coordinate communications materials, including news stories and videos, that explain and promote the importance of this program.
“As someone who is passionate about world water issues, I’ve really enjoyed working on this project, and getting to tell people about it,” says Spruill, who double-majored in political science and international environmental policy (an individual major). “This is a hugely important project, as tensions due to lack of water and other resources have historically led to civil unrest in the country. This process allows each stakeholder to sit around the same table and have their voice heard.”
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