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Global Water for Sustainability: Delivering clean water solutions around the world

Global Water for Sustainability: Delivering clean water solutions around the world

August 22, 2012 at 12:00am

Every year, tourists flock to the Mara River to witness what has been described as one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world – the great African animal migration. Wildebeests, zebras and gazelles gather by the hundreds along the jewel-like river in Tanzania and move northward to Kenya. Thousands of people travel to Africa to watch the animals’ journey, which is regularly cited as one of the top travel attractions in the world. Tourism is booming.

That’s the good news – and the bad.

By Robyn Nissim | Illustration by Chris McAllister

Along with the boost to the local economies, the visitors put additional strain on the water supply of the Mara River, one of the only perennial sources of water in that region of East Africa. Water is a finite resource. And just like some of the rare species of animals that follow the water to the north, water needs to be protected.

When there is a drought in South Florida, people are restricted on when they can water their lawns, fill their pools or use their decorative water features. When there is a drought in other parts of the world, there is famine, war, disease and damage to the environment, to animals and to people.

But “whether one is in a well-developed society or in a small community without services, water is still a major need for survival,” says Maria Donoso, director of FIU’s Global Water for Sustainability (GLOWS) program. And in the long run, the threats to people’s health, livelihood and natural environment are the same.

“There is a circle of nature that if you break or endanger it, will come back to haunt you,” Donoso says.

War, gender inequality, disease, pollution, deforestation, animal extinction, politics, governmental upheaval and abject poverty can be mitigated by one element – clean, useable water. Which is not always easy 
to obtain.

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. With the world’s population at 7 billion and climbing, clean water is definitely at a premium.

GLOWS was created in 2006 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to address the world’s growing water crisis. With $84 million from USAID, GLOWS is now one of the university’s largest federally funded programs and has established FIU as an international authority on integrated water resources management. Based in the School of Environment, Arts and Society on FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus, GLOWS is operated by a small staff of four, including director Donoso and program executive officers Ryan Stoa, an environmental lawyer at the College of Law, Lanakila McMahn, a sanitation and water supply expert at the Robert Stempel School of Public Health, and Alberto Tejada and Elizabeth Anderson, an urban hydrologist and an ecologist, respectively, in the College of Arts and Sciences. GLOWS partners with CARE, WaterAid America, Winrock International, World Wildlife Fund and World Vision U.S., to provide a holistic approach to integrated water resource management.

“The great thing about working in a consortium {like GLOWS} is that there’s a range of issues that we deal with – particularly with water, there are so many facets of life that it touches upon – and in the consortium you have people with a range of different expertise, both in terms of topics and experiences. Bringing those together creates a really rich fora in terms of identifying solutions and working together,” says Mary Renwick, who leads the Water Innovation Program at Winrock.

GLOWS has teams working across the globe, with six projects in Ghana, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and the country of Georgia in the South Caucasus region of Europe. Three projects have been completed in India, Morocco, Peru and Ecuador. GLOWS program activities include developing and applying new techniques to “harvest water,” including building wells and sanitizing existing water supplies; health and hygiene training and education, waste management and agricultural techniques. In countries such as Georgia, where water is abundant, GLOWS is working with local officials to protect the existing water supply and to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable development and preserving the environment.

Over the years, nine FIU students have developed theses on 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. GLOWS also provides support for a number of non-FIU students in other countries.

“The University is a neutral place where all of the minds can come together and present their information without weighing in on a particular interest,” Donoso adds. “An additional benefit that FIU brings is the science base and the opportunities for collaborative projects. And it gives our students and faculty the unique experience of becoming involved in real-life laboratories.”

GLOWS pioneered an on-the-ground method of water management research that has led to a more targeted approach to individual country’s questions and specific needs. Six years ago, this was a radical concept. “We, as FIU, a research institution, became engaged with community partners, who communicated to us what the most critical questions were. Suddenly, our research wasn’t purely curiosity-driven or directed by what we were reading,” explains Professor Michael McClain, an environmental scientist and founding director of GLOWS.

“On the other side, the development agencies realized they had a partner that was generating knowledge at a level and quality that had not been available before. So that process began and has expanded to many other areas of the world. And FIU students and researchers are critical components of this approach.”

As the program grew, its work began evolving. “GLOWS is trying to pursue and promote at all levels the importance of water resource management in an integrated, sustainable way,” says Donoso. “In many, many cases we have found that you build an area on one hand and deteriorate the quality of the water on the other.”

Take, for example, the Wami Ruvu basin in Tanzania where the GLOWS projects include exploring various ways to maximize the supply of clean safe water for basic needs and trying to create opportunities for business ventures among local villagers so that clean water is a financial benefit, as well as necessity.

“Involving the private sector is critical for long-term success and for a sustainable supply of services and goods,” says Vivianne Abbott, director of the Integrated Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program in Tanzania. Abbott notes that GLOWS has helped foster 27 new village micro-savings and micro-financing programs that are serving more than 25,000 people in the area.

But the potential for profit is not always enough motivation to change habits, Donoso points out. Concepts must be translated into laws and policies to ensure adherence. And that is another way that GLOWS is making its mark on the world.

In the Mara River Basin where Africa’s wild animals migrate every year, GLOWS has been working with the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, an intergovernmental agency composed of states that lie along that body of water. Together, they are supporting governments in their efforts to establish policies that would ensure the continued health of the rivers and lakes. They completed an environmental assessment that detailed the minimum water flows required to sustain surrounding ecosystems – to determine a harmonious balance among the wildlife, the communities and the tourists. Those these studies are translated into policies that are being adopted and derived into laws and regulations at the country level.

“This is major because it goes beyond what we can do as a project,” Donoso says. “When you translate your awareness campaigns and elevate them to policy, it assures a higher level of support from the governments of the countries. We hope that this means there will be a continuation of our efforts beyond a project’s timeline.”

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

“GLOWS is really focused on generating knowledge to improve development in the world,” says McClain. “That’s what it boils down to.”


GLOWS Around the World

A consortium of international organizations led by FIU is providing solutions to the global water crisis. With $84 million in USAID grants, a team of scientists and an environmental law expert at FIU lead the implementation of GLOWS projects around the world. Other members of the GLOWS consortium include CARE, WaterAid America, Winrock International, World Vision and the World Wildlife Fund.

Ecuador and Peru: The Pastaza River Basin begins in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador and ends at the Marañon River in Peru, which carries its waters into the Amazon. The lives of thousands of people are closely tied to the Pastaza River’s resources. In 2006, GLOWS established the regular collection of water data to be used by local authorities and formed local committees to participate in effective water management. The project also developed a fisheries management plan, advanced sound petroleum exploration management and promoted collaboration among native communities on both sides of the border.

West Africa: Ghana, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso: This $28 million GLOWS project is increasing the number of people with access to safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene in four nations. Poor water quality is a major concern in all four countries, particularly Niger, Ghana and Burkina Faso, where access to sanitation is less than 15 percent. In Mali, less than half of the population has access to a toilet. GLOWS is introducing water and sanitation technology and promoting better hygiene at community level, while developing models that can be replicated in other parts of Africa.

Morocco: In 2009, GLOWS implemented a water access project in the El-Haouz region of Morocco to increase access to drinking water, improve hygiene practices and encourage collaboration among local authorities to govern water. In the agricultural Doukkala Province, GLOWS improved water use practices by small farmers to enhance livelihoods and ensure sustainability. The $350,000 project, completed in 2011, brought clean water to hundreds of children in local schools, provided more than 1,000 people with improved access to sustainable water and educated 3,000 people on best hygiene practices.

Pan-Africa: Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mozambique: This $500,000 GLOWS project targets Sub-Saharan African countries, where there are large, well-experienced regional, national and international organizations in the water delivery, sanitation and hygiene field, yet local organizations lack the necessary technical capacity to solve these challenges. GLOWS seeks to bridge the knowledge gap with technical training and education so local organizations are able to develop sustainable, state-of-the art, locally tailored approaches to water delivery, sanitation and hygiene.

Rwanda: Focused on sustainable management of water quantity and quality, this $21.9 million project will improve nutrition for families, decrease health problems and increase productive time, which is being spent looking for water, largely from unprotected sources. At the community level, GLOWS is implementing innovative technical activities to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable rural populations, while working to ensure the long-term benefits of these activities. At the district and national levels, GLOWS is working with Rwandan authorities on strategies to replicate successful projects elsewhere in the country.

Georgia: In the country of Georgia, where most of the population has access to potable water, the big issues are waste management and conservation. Many surface waters are severely polluted, forests are illegally logged and grasslands are overgrazed. Inappropriate irrigation and agricultural practices have degraded large areas of arable land through erosion and salinization of soils. The $6.5 million Georgia GLOWS program aims to promote the benefits of preserving the country’s abundant natural resources and to demonstrate the link between sustainable development and future economic growth.

Kenya and Tanzania: Kenya and Tanzania share the resources – and challenges – of the Mara River Basin, home to Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit annually to witness the migration of millions of wildebeests. This yearly influx of tourists is just one of the many issues stressing the fragile balance of the area. The mission of the $6.3 million GLOWS project is multi-faceted: work with governmental authorities in Kenya, Tanzania and the Mara River Basin to preserve water flows; implement a program that improves river basin management practices; promote biodiversity conservation; and increase access to safe water and improved sanitation and promote better hygiene.

Tanzania: The Wami Ruvu Basin is water rich, but more than half the people in this southern Tanzanian region have no access to clean water. The $15 million GLOWS program aims to supply clean, safe water for drinking and domestic use. GLOWS is working with local governments and NGOs to provide water, sanitation and hygiene services. Micro-lending at the village level encourages private investment in this effort. More than 70 water access points have been created serving some 16,000 people, and more than 20,000 people have completed sanitation and hygiene education.

India: Located in northwest India, Rajasthan is the largest state in the country. During monsoon season, the Wakal Basin is full of water; however, during the dry season, residents suffer from water scarcity. In 2006, GLOWS launched a project to promote equal access to and sustainable use of water in the region. The GLOWS team collected data on groundwater quality and introduced improved rainwater harvesting techniques, then worked with communities to encourage collaboration and protect the region’s biodiversity.