Summit in Tanzania focuses on safe water, sanitation
The Safe Global Water and Sanitation Summit leadership committee and session chairs join CEE professor Benito Mariñas, second from left in the front row, and Tanzanian Prime Minister, the Honorable Mizengo Pinda, third from left in the front row, outside of the conference center in Arusha, Tanzania. The leadership committee represents faculty and students from the United States,Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
Water and sanitation challenges in the developing world were the topics of an international, three-day Safe Global Water and Sanitation Summit, held Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Arusha, Tanzania. Organized by the College’s new Safe Global Water Institute (SGWI) and led by its director, CEE Professor Benito Mariñas, the event brought together more than 120 participants from 34 organizations and 12 countries. Their shared goal: to help educate the next generation of professionals from a variety of fields who will work to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide without access to improved water and the billions who lack even basic sanitation.
In addition to shedding light on the problems in these areas, the summit served to ignite passion in the professionals from academia, non-governmental organizations and government agencies who will work in partnership with the SGWI. The summit was held in East Africa, because the water and sanitation challenges facing this region are among the world’s most pressing, yet the technical challenges facing the communities and the cultural constraints involved in solving their problems are often not fully understood, Mariñas said.
CEE graduate student Lauren Valentino, front left, and undergraduates Nora Sadik, second from right, Genevieve Nemeth, far right, and Josh Doo, middle front, take water quality samples at Kimosonu spring, Arusha Region, Tanzania, with graduate students Jacob Kihila and Honest Kipasika from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology at Arusha.
“There are many people who have the expertise to contribute to solving these problems, but they really don’t understand the situation in the communities,” Mariñas said. “We felt it was very important to do it locally. … If you don’t meet face to face, you don’t understand what you’re trying to tackle. You really need to understand how to interact with these communities.”
The summit’s presentations focused on water and its complex relationships to climate change, energy, food security and nutrition. A highlight was an address by the Prime Minister of Tanzania, the Honorable Mizengo Pinda, who delivered the opening address. In addition to Mariñas, CEE faculty members who attended were Associate Professor Tami Bond, Professor Ximing Cai and Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest. Associate Professor Joanna Shisler of the University of Illinois’ School of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Professor Yi Lu of the University of Illinois’ School of Chemistry also participated. A large group of CEE graduate students representing the various academic disciplines also attended and led a final session of the summit summarizing a strategy for a path forward toward integrating the global partnership.
An important focus of the summit was the necessity of the interdisciplinary approach—collaborating with experts from a variety of disciplines to find truly sustainable solutions to the water and sanitation problems of the developing world. Engineering solutions developed without an understanding of the local culture can be destined for failure, Mariñas said.
“When you are working on problems in the developing world, you need to have the social sciences involved,” he said. “Here, we may think about putting chlorine in the water to disinfect it, but there are many places in the world where, if you tell them you are going to add something to the water, they are going to think the water is impure because you added a chemical and they are going to go back to the river with the highly contaminated water because that is the natural water that God gave them.”
“There are religious constraints, there are cultural constraints. If you don’t understand that, it doesn’t matter what technology you are developing with the chemists, biologist and engineers—it’s just not going to work. We need to also involve the social scientists.”
The mission of the SGWI is to educate the next generation of technical professionals who will work to solve water and sanitation problems in the developing world with this critical interdisciplinary approach.
“The ultimate goal of our initiative is higher education capacity building,” Mariñas said. “Capacity building means we need to train students who are going to become professionals who are going to address these problems.
“Universities are not in the business of solving problems. Universities are in the business of training the human resources who will solve problems. We want to have a generation of U.S. students who are engaged globally that really understand these problems, and they’re going to be working with professionals that will be trained in this partnership in the local countries.”
Following the summit, Mariñas remained in Tanzania two more weeks with a group of CEE undergraduate and graduate students as part of his environmental lab course, CEE449. The course teaches laboratory methods to senior undergraduates and includes the opportunity to work on real-world water projects in developing countries. The projects, which take place in either Africa or Mexico, are accomplished with the help of CEE environmental graduate students and partnerships with local universities.
This time, Mariñas and his students utilized as their home base the campus of Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania. CEE Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest and Associate Professor Joanna Shisler also participated in this portion of the trip. The group met with its partners at the university and visited a number of communities in the surrounding area with representatives of non-governmental organizations to learn about the communities’ water and sanitation challenges.
Intense student interest in working to improve the lives of people in developing countries first motivated Mariñas to focus his work in that direction, he said.
“There is a huge driving force from the side of the students,” he said. “There is a generation that really wants to do this.”
Within the international relief community, the need is great for those with the technical expertise these students are acquiring, Mariñas said.
“There is definitely a lack of technical expertise at the global level that requires this new generation of people who understand how safe water can be produced and work with the existing work force that is right now engaged and working with these communities,” he said.