State of the Planet

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Student ‘Aquanauts’ to Tackle Water Issues

By Melissa von Mayrhauser

The Columbia Water Center and an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty members have started a new student group, called Aquanauts, to provide a platform for students to research and respond to water security issues, particularly through internships.

The group plans to focus on issues of water scarcity, through the lenses of food and energy production, social aspects of water distribution, climate change and environmental conservation, especially in the developing world and the United States.

“I am hopeful that the group will not only research and define solutions to the world’s greatest water challenges, but also have the chance to implement these solutions on the field and make a physical impact in the world,” Kristina Gsell, the Aquanauts’ student president, said.

Upmanu Lall, the director of the Water Center, who conceived of the idea, thinks of the group as a means to connect students, faculty and water organizations and to prepare students for future careers through broad-scale research projects.

“We would like to take on international problems, problems of development, problems in the United States, but have them done with academic content and interest,” Lall said. “Instead of people being sent to random places, we would take engineering companies that have an interest in a particular region in solving a problem, and they would bring the problem to the students.”
Students are currently working on the issues of hydrofracking, irrigation efficiency, wastewater, urban landscapes and virtual water with the assistance of faculty members. Some students will apply what they are working on through summer internships from both engineering and policy-making perspectives.

“Students working on research projects would be able to make connections as their work progresses,” Margo Weiss, a program manager at the Water Center, said, “And it would lead into an internship that would be funded through the Columbia Water Center. We would match students with a funder.”

The group members will also contribute blog posts for the Water Center’s website and write articles to submit to journals and newspapers.

“We are expecting students to do a lot of writing during the school year, but in the summer they [are] actually going out and working on things,” said Lall. “And then if they have learned something from that, they could turn that into advocacy, but that would be based on actual experience.”

Samantha Tress, a program manager at the Water Center, has been working to secure funding for student interns’ research expenses. She is optimistic about student involvement.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that we’re willing to give students in terms of the research,” Tress said. “We have a lot of faculty members on board. It’s early to say how the interaction will go, but I think the students are driving this.”

The students are planning to set up a table on World Water Day in the center of College Walk to raise awareness about water security issues. While the day will perhaps be a time for the Water Center to draw attention to its key issues, Lall is unsure about the day’s efficacy.

“On World Water Day, every organization is making noise about water, so are we just going to get drowned out?” Lall said. “Should we set up a different day where we highlight our efforts?”

Still, as Tress said, the Water Center expects that Aquanauts will become a constant presence on campus that will contribute to the Water Center’s work.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about youth interest in water, and we are trying to give them a platform to speak,” Tress said.

Melissa von Mayrhauser is an intern at the Earth Institute and an undergraduate student at Columbia College.

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