September 12, 2011

Tackling the global water challenge

Problems in U.S. and abroad need ‘big ideas’

Kellogg Schwab collects a sample for biological and chemical analysis from a drinking water source used by a small community in rural Nicaragua. Part of an effort to examine the effectiveness of drinking water treatment interventions at the household level in Central America, the project included faculty from the schools of Nursing and Public Health, two PhD students and three MPH students. Photo Courtesy Global Water Program

Earlier this month, 20 high-profile experts on water use, the world economy, and urban and rural development traveled to the small town of Bellagio, Italy, for a three-day brainstorming session.

The conference, co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Global Water Program and the Rockefeller Foundation, sought to address how best to accelerate safe water access for the poor through multiuse services.

The group knew there was no simple solution. The agricultural, industrial, potable water and sanitation sectors all face significant challenges in procuring and preserving adequate supplies of safe water, especially in poor countries. There’s also no one-size-fits-all multiuse water system due to variations in climate, wealth, access to technology and available safe water sources.

The Rockefeller Foundation, not one to shy from a challenge, is considering developing a new philanthropic program focused on such water access issues and approached Johns Hopkins to help formulate its thinking.

When it comes to water, Johns Hopkins is quickly becoming the go-to resource.

The Global Water Program was founded in summer 2009 to leverage Johns Hopkins’ expertise in multiple disciplines to help solve the global water challenge through innovation, education and collaboration. The program wants to help discover solutions to domestic and international water challenges that are safe, scalable and sustainable.

Kellogg Schwab, director of the Global Water Program and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that the recent conference at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center is just one example of how the program connects people from multiple disciplines who otherwise would never sit together.

“For a conference like this, we get decision-makers to come together focused on a theme so that they can think outside their own area,” said Schwab, who attended the conference along with Johns Hopkins colleagues Nicholas Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering; Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health; Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future; and Luke MacDonald, program manager of the Global Water Program. The conference also included representatives of water organizations, the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Bank, and leading university-based researchers.

“This was a game-changing conference, to work in a more integrated fashion,” Schwab said. “It’s a chance to come up with big ideas and think outside of the box.”

Big ideas, Schwab said, are needed to address the planet’s water issues.

According to World Health Organization Joint Monitoring Program figures, water-related problems affect half of humanity. Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries are without “improved” water sources, meaning no piped water, public taps, protected springs, septic tanks and other basic services that some in the Western world might take for granted. Nearly 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation. Each year, more than 5 million people die from water-related disease, and less than 1 percent of the world’s water is accessible for direct human use.

To help Johns Hopkins become a world leader in addressing this increasingly crucial issue, the Office of the Provost seeded the Global Water Program with a three-year “discovery” grant in 2009. In the future, the program will be supported by a combination of external grants and internal funding from the Johns Hopkins divisions. The schools of Engineering, Medicine and Public Health have already signed an agreement to provide funding.

The Global Water Program addresses these challenges in six broad themes: policy, infrastructure, the environment, health, food and energy.

To date, the program has hosted a number of conferences, launched a website that has become a clearinghouse for Johns Hopkins’ water-related efforts, developed an online magazine that presents news and opinions on water issues, connected JHU researchers to facilitate projects and launched a seed grant program that has led to successful grant submissions to federal agencies.

Schwab said that an issue as massive as this demands a cross-disciplinary approach. The group brings 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.

“The Global Water Program brings Johns Hopkins researchers together to address the critical issues regarding water, and this goes beyond just drinking water,” he said. “We develop partnerships. We are tying people together to address the questions that need to be faced in the 21st century.”

In the coming months, the program will launch another seed grant initiative and ramp up its efforts to foster interdisciplinary research projects by connecting Johns Hopkins researchers to each other and to outside funding sources, said Luke MacDonald.

“They can come to us with ideas, and we provide the glue,” he said. “We can point people to who they should be partnering with, and we’ll help write the proposals. We have the mechanisms to get these proposals off the ground so that they can drive change.”

MacDonald said that the program has become a library of information that can help connect the dots.

“We have helped start projects that likely would not have happened if not for the infrastructure here at the Global Water Program,” he said.

He gave an example of a Public Health researcher who needed satellite-sensing data to see how the environment can be linked to the spread of cholera. The program paired the researcher with someone at Arts and Sciences who had access to the needed data, and now the two are applying for federal funding.

The program also has funds available for students to attend and present at meetings and conferences with a water theme.

The Global Water Program broadens and expands the work of the Center for Water and Health, which over the past decade has integrated JHU researchers from multiple disciplines to address water-related public health issues.

To find out more about JHU’s Global Water Program, go to