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Global Water Institute taps College of Engineering to expand impact

A new report produced by UNICEF and the World Health Organization reveals that billions of people around the world continue to suffer from poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

This vexing global crisis and the Buckeye spirit of paying forward gave rise to the Global Water Institute (GWI), launched by The Ohio State University Office of Research in 2016 with the support of seven colleges. In July 2019, GWI operations were transferred to the College of Engineering, with the intent of broadening its already impressive mission and reach.

“The primary focus of GWI is to use our knowledge and technology to help solve water access issues for communities in dire need,” said College of Engineering Dean David B. Williams. “It has evolved beyond a research project into an international outreach endeavor, and that’s why it fits so well in our college and with our students and faculty.”

Ghalunyangu village council meeting in small roomDean Williams attends a Ghalunyangu village council meetingIn early spring 2019, Williams joined GWI Executive Director Marty Kress and Senior Research Associate Rebecca Gianotti for a trip to Tanzania, Africa, visiting several villages impacted by their work.

“We have a list of 5,000 Tanzanian villages that haven’t had water for three to five years,” said Kress. “They have to walk endlessly to find water, which is most often contaminated.”

Now, lives are being transformed through GWI’s efforts in Africa, which involve faculty and students from across the university. Teams are working with 26 villages to secure clean water by replacing broken wells that serve more than 120,000 Tanzanians. They hope to expand to 125 villages and address additional concerns such as sanitation and renewable energy.

“With sustainable access to water, we address basic needs, improve health and can teach people how to farm,” Kress said. “Before, they could scarcely grow maize. Now they grow cabbages, tomatoes, onions and sweet potatoes. This increases nutritional value for kids and creates economic opportunities for moms and dads.”

Tanzanian schoolchildren using water well faucetStudents in Ghalunyangu use a GWI well

Kress is excited about the new relationship with the College of Engineering. “You took an institute with five people and married it with a college that is already significantly active in service projects around the world.” He added that GWI projects will provide even more experiential learning opportunities for engineering undergrads and graduate students.

“This aligns with the aspirations of so many of our students who want to change the world with their engineering knowledge,” added Dean Williams, “as well as a fair share of our alumni.”

In essence, GWI is a one-of-a-kind outreach insti­tute, unlike any other organization that exists on campus. It is the glue between a disparate coalition of organizations—not-for-profits like former NFL star Chris Long’s Waterboys initiative, the University of Dodoma, and three Tanzanian government agen­cies. A subset of these organizations fund the actual construction and operation of the wells.

GWI’s Water and Development Alliance (WADA) Entrepreneurship for Resilient Village Water Systems in Tanzania project is an example of their impact and immediacy. Launched in June of 2018, activities have been focused in the Singida region of Tanzania, with installation and rehabilitation of water systems in 10 villages. Next, these villages will receive solar powered pumps and monitoring sensors that will provide real-time information on the status of the groundwater. And villagers are being trained with skills to maintain the water system infrastructure and enhance economic activities in their local communities. The $2 million project is supported by The Coca-Cola Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), WorldServe International and Waterboys.

Together with the Tanzanian Ministry of Water, GWI and its partners identified villages in need of assistance and committed to install or upgrade solar-powered water systems to benefit over 70,000 rural Tanzanians. A critical component of the project is to provide the villages with two years of technical support to train and develop water service entrepreneurs—especially women—to perform operations and maintenance tasks.

“This is our version of the ‘teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime’ proverb,” said Kress.

Additionally, the project is investing in the technical knowledge of Tanzania’s workforce through field work with the ministry’s District Water Engineers and technical training for University of Dodoma engineering students. Kress said agreements and collaboration with the university and government officials has been critical to their success.

photo of Ohio State and Tanzanian Water Ministry leadersKress (second from left), Dean Williams (tan suit, middle) and Gianotti (green blouse, middle) meeting with Tanzanian Ministry of WaterIn addition to deploying sustainable systems in Tanzania, GWI soon will initiate two pilot projects in Kenya in collaboration with the KenGen Foundation.

Dean Williams said that GWI will become the college’s primary international program and enable integration of several other current and future initiatives in East Africa. “And we will add even greater education and research components to the amazing humanitarian outreach occurring now.”

Recalling his recent visit to observe GWI’s work in Tanzania, Dean Williams said it was the most extraordinary outreach effort he has witnessed. It helped convince him that the college should oversee its growth. It also inspired him and Senior Associate Dean John Horack to join the Waterboys fundraising climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro—Conquering Kili—next spring.

“GWI is doing so much more than just bringing clean, potable water—it is changing lives and whole communities,” he said. “Through it we are living up to Ohio State’s role as a land-grant university of the 21st century.”

To support GWI students, staff and faculty, consider a donation to help them expand their life-saving work to more communities in need.