Johns Hopkins Gazette | February 2, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 2, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 20
Water Crisis Surfaces As Top Priority

Group to draw on JHU expertise to tackle this global issue

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The university's fledgling Global Water Program wants to exploit every last drop of Johns Hopkins expertise on the most basic and vital of Earth's resources.

In the midst of a deepening global water crisis, the program's steering committee members said there is no time to waste.

According to the most recent United Nations figures, water-related problems affect half of humanity. Roughly 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Each year, more than 5 million people die from water-related disease, and less than 1 percent of the world's fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use.

To help Johns Hopkins become a world leader in addressing this increasingly crucial issue, the Office of the Provost has seeded the Global Water Program with a three-year grant.

The program was one of the 11 inaugural grant winners out of 74 proposals submitted to the Framework for the Future's Discovery Working Group. Each selected initiative will receive start-up funding of up to $200,000 per year for up to three years. The university hopes these grants will ignite new areas and strengthen existing ones where crossdisciplinary interactions make a major difference.

The Discovery Working Group is one part of Framework for the Future, a strategic planning process that Provost Kristina Johnson and President William R. Brody initiated in May 2008 to engage the university community in strategizing how Johns Hopkins will maintain its leadership in research, discovery, education and practice, while continuing to positively influence a global society. The other parts are Ways and Means, and People.

Kellogg Schwab, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Global Water Program steering committee member, said that the group's work is just getting under way and that its members are currently canvassing Johns Hopkins to discover ongoing water-related projects and individuals with a strong interest in this area of study. The group has already brought in faculty and staff from the schools of Public Health, Engineering and Advanced International Studies, and the Applied Physics Laboratory. And they want more.

"We want to reach out and discover who all the players are. We're trying to set the stage of where we are in terms of water-related research and policy study," said Schwab, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health and a faculty member in the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. "The long-range goal is to put together a strong team that can present new data, research ideas and concepts that revolve around water. Right now, we're still in the early stages and considering a host of ideas."

Schwab said that an issue as massive as this demands a crossdisciplinary approach. The group wants to bring together public health researchers, biologists, engineers, behaviorists, economists, policy experts, anthropologists, physicians and others who can make fundamental changes related to water access and use on a worldwide scale.

"Water is the core basic need of our society, and clean water is running out," Schwab said. "We need to have action."

The Global Water Program will build upon the work of the Center for Water and Health, which seeks to integrate researchers from multiple disciplines to address water-related public health issues. Schwab's own research focuses on the development of new approaches for evaluating human microbial exposure assessment and for investigating the fate and transport of agents in the environment. His current water-related research projects include examining the use of better microbial water-quality indicators, working on improvements for drinking water and wastewater treatment processes, evaluating the impact of human pollution on urban streams and the Chesapeake Bay that are caused by aging distribution systems and appraising community-level and point-of-use water treatment systems throughout the world.

In addition to Schwab, the program's steering committee members are William Ball and Seth Guikema, both from the Whiting School's Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering; Maria Elena Figueroa, deputy director of the Bloomberg School's Center for Communication Programs; Scott Barrett, director of the Energy, Environment, Science and Technology Program at SAIS; and Charles Young, a senior staff scientist at APL.

Guikema said that the new Framework-funded program can be used to bridge ongoing water-related efforts, help researchers secure funding and attract students and faculty from other institutions. In the near future, the program will develop workshops, symposia and fellowship programs. The group is also looking into creating a Web site that would serve as a clearinghouse for all JHU water-related initiatives.

"We expect to bring together a diverse group of people from across JHU, and outside the university, too," said Guikema, an assistant professor. "This matter spans a lot of what Johns Hopkins does, and we are ideally suited to tackle this problem. We already have a strong foundation. DOGEE has a long history of water-related work, whether it's water treatment or distribution systems."

Guikema said that water will increasingly become a major driver of conflicts and health concerns around the world. He said that problems have likely been exacerbated in recent years by climate change, population growth and resource mismanagement.

SAIS is examining the critical role of water throughout the world as a special substantive theme for the 2008-2009 academic year. The "Year of Water" brings the SAIS community together to explore global water issues as they relate to economics and commerce, agriculture, the environment, new technologies, development and poverty, security, public health, and conflict and cooperation.

"Water is one of the main limiting resources for development in much of the developing world," Guikema said. "Water scarcity is a major issue. How do we help people gain access to drinking water? Quality is also an issue. There are a host of emerging containments. We know how to remove some of them, but how do we do it on a large scale, and in impoverished areas? These are just some of the questions we will be looking into."

To find out more about JHU's Global Water Program and to join the effort, contact Schwab at


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