Tufts University

Water, Water, Everywhere


WSSS faculty and students confront water management issues across the globe through a broad range of research initiatives.

Water resource management is not just a local problem or a foreign problem. As anyone in the Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program will tell you, it's an everywhere problem.

"You don’t have to go far to find the issues," says John Durant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "But if you want to go far, you'll find them there, too."

It may seem obvious, but the list of all the basic activities that rely on a healthy, stable water supply—drinking, washing, cooking, irrigation and cooling, to name a few—can be staggering. And nearly all of them are endangered by persistent issues of water quality, supply and access, not just in the developing world but as close to campus as the Mystic River.

"The issues are not getting easier," Durant explains. "As countries become more developed, their needs for water increase exponentially."

Then there are problems that may not leap to mind at first, but are just as pervasive and critical.

On one hand, there is the impact on everyday life. The distance a member of the household has to travel in order to obtain water, Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy Professor and WSSS co-director Bea Rogers explains, affects not only the amount of water the family is able to obtain for adequate washing and drinking but also the time that could otherwise be spent working. Then there are the more political concerns, where transboundary water issues, the demands of urbanization, and the question of whether water is a basic human right all come into play.

Building Awareness

These issues have achieved heightened public prominence in recent years, making interdisciplinary programs like WSSS invaluable to those looking to make an impact.

"That's the critical value of the WSSS program. It's matching this development in how we look at managing water resources."

— Ned Spang

"I think people are also starting to look at water a bit differently," says Fletcher School graduate student Ned Spang. "Now it's looked at a lot more comprehensively. That's the critical value of the WSSS program. It's matching this development in how we look at managing water resources."

"We really, really, really believe you've got to have strong expertise in your discipline to be effective in water research and practice," says WSSS co-director and Research Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Paul Kirshen. "But you've got to understand what other disciplines bring to this so at least you know the right questions to ask and what the weaknesses are. The students themselves are working with faculty and students from all disciplines. That's an experience that's going to last their whole lives."

WSSS faculty and students are carrying those lessons out into the field, fanning out across the country and around the world to confront water management issues.

"The thing is, everybody knows about water," says Kirshen. "For the students, they see the opportunity to work in water as an opportunity to really make a difference and better people's lives in the United States and the world."

WSSS Around The World

Associate Professor of Public Health Jeff Griffiths, one of the earliest collaborators in the WSSS program, is working with students as well as civil and environmental engineering colleagues David Gute and Durant on an initiative in Ghana gold-mining community to battle schistosomiasis, a disease caused by a water-dwelling parasite.

"Tufts is really ready for this. It's this litany of strengths in all these different areas."

— Jeff Griffiths

"Tufts is really ready for this," says Griffiths, who also sits on the national drinking water committee for the United States. "It's this litany of strengths in all these different areas that now have people who are saying, 'It's great that I know this policy, but you're the person who's got the expertise in that and I'm going to draw you into this.'"

As for Spang, he and three other WSSS students are studying the impact of pollution on the barrier reefs along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Through a grant from the Tufts Institute of the Environment, he has also studied the impact of glacier melt in Peru.

"In the wet season, snow will collect on the glaciers," he explains. "In the dry season, the snow melts and keeps the river flowing. If there are no glaciers there whatsoever, the difference between the wet and dry seasons would be more drastic—too much water in the wet seasons and not enough in the dry."

Ned Spang Ned Spang

Ned Spang researched the pollution of barrier reefs in Guatemala (left) and the impact of glacier melt in Peru (right).

Jamie Delemos, a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering, was drawn to Tufts by the diversity of the civil and environmental engineering department. When Gute introduced her to the WSSS program, she never looked back.

Her research focuses on arsenic exposure in Bangladesh, which according to Durant has some of the highest exposure rates in the world, and its connection to increased rates of infectious disease. Delemos is currently working to set up a partnership with the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Bangladesh.

"That would be the first time anyone's looked at that," says Durant. "We are quite optimistic that's going to lead to something really important."

Melissa Rosen, an MS/MPH candidate at the Friedman School, came to Tufts to combine her loves of science and policy by studying public health. Last summer, she interned with Mass. State Sen. Susan Fargo, chairwoman of the public health committee, to research the gasoline additive MTBE. Rosen examined the issue of soil and groundwater contamination by MTBE and options for dealing with it legislatively.

"We're the last state in New England that hasn't banned MTBE," notes Rosen. "It was great to apply what I'd learned to the real world atmosphere."

That real world application is just as integral to the WSSS program as the classroom experience. And given how many bodies of water there are around the world, Fletcher School Professor Bill Moomaw believes those opportunities are limitless.

"I think we won't run out of places to go and study and work on," he says.

Profile written by Georgiana Cohen

Pictured on homepage: Ned Spang and Melissa Rosen. Pictured at top right: John Durant and Jamie Delemos. Photos by Jodi Hilton for Tufts University. Field photos courtesy of Patrick Willis and Ned Spang.

This story originally ran on Feb. 27, 2006