FIU leads global water projects around the world

On Earth Day, April 22, more than one billion people around the globe will mark the importance of protecting our planet. That’s nearly the same number of people who lack access to safe drinking water.

Water is our most basic need—too little or too much impacts every aspect of our lives. When you live in an area where you don’t have to look very far for a water fountain, it’s hard to comprehend, but water is one of the world’s most precious resources. More than two thirds of the planet’s surface is water but only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Of that fresh water, less than 1 percent (.007) is accessible for human use. The need for water and supply of water will affect you whether you live in sub-Saharan Africa or Miami.

The Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) program, led by FIU, was created in 2006 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help address the world’s growing water crisis. It is now one of the university’s largest federally funded programs and helped place FIU and GLOWS as the go-to people for integrated water resources management.

Women gather water in Pemba, Tanzania where GLOWS is working on sanitation projects and hygiene education.

“USAID made the decision to put the a university at the center of a program, a university that brought all of the knowledge and technical expertise in many aspects of water, and then teamed that university up with other organizations that were implementing development programs around the world,” said FIU Professor Michael McClain, founding director of GLOWS. “It was a wonderful idea and a wonderful marriage and it succeeded in elevating both groups much higher than they would have been otherwise.”

The on-the-ground interaction between a research university and development groups enabled both to focus on critical questions and specific needs. That led to a more targeted approach to water resource management, which had a significant impact on the communities GLOWS was serving.

GLOWS has teams working across the globe, with six projects in Ghana, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, the country of Georgia in the South Caucasus region of Europe. Three projects have been completed in India, Morocco, Peru and Ecuador.

“With past and current projects in Africa, Asia, and South America, GLOWS has a remarkably global impact,” says GLOWS Program Executive Officer Ryan Stoa. “By harnessing FIU’s institutional strength in water resources development, GLOWS has become a major player in the field.”

GLOWS is operated at FIU by a staff of four scientists and Stoa, an environmental lawyer at the College of Law. Together, the GLOWS team teaches a graduate course on global water issues in the School and Environment, Arts and Society. The course, Integrated Solutions for Water and Development, provides students with an overview of water policy, governance, management and practices around the world.

Over the years, more than 10 FIU students have been involved with GLOWS-related research projects. Students have traveled to the project sites around the world looking at basic water demand, precipitation and river flows and the economics of water.

Even though some of GLOWS work is located in small countries, “the challenges are not small,” says David Mutekanga, country director for the Rwanda Integrated Water Supply Program. “And we have the ability of make a big impact.”

Child gathers water from a pump installed by the GLOWS program in Tanzania.

GLOWS works to increase social, economic, and environmental benefits to people of the developing world. “It’s a holistic approach to water resource management,” says Vivianne Abbott, director of the Integrated Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program in Tanzania’s Wami Ruvu basin.

Continuing leadership and innovation through GLOWS positions FIU as one the top water research universities in the country, with funded projects in freshwater issues ranging from water supply, sanitation, wetland ecosystems, agricultural irrigation to water resources management and public policy.

“Our work at GLOWS is necessarily interdisciplinary and international in nature – FIU not only shares but actively fosters this vision,” Stoa says.

Robyn Nissim