State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


How We Can All Make Waves: Earth Day Reflections from Columbia Water Center

By Zoe Namerow

Photo: Michael Foley

Each April, we eagerly await the sight of delicate leaves unfurling from naked tree branches; we arm ourselves with umbrellas to shield from “April showers,” and most importantly, we celebrate Earth Day. Celebrating its 48th year, Earth Day was founded as a day for people around the globe to stand together and take action to support a sustainable future for our planet. Whether it’s marching to support environmental policy change, signing petitions, making pledges to adopt sustainable practices, or planting trees in local communities, Earth Day has galvanized over 1 billion people in 192 countries around the world to take action.

For those who work at the Columbia Water Center, the environmental threats that face our planet—particularly those relating to water resources—are front-of-mind every day. The Columbia Water Center is comprised of researchers, scientists, professors, and staff who are deeply dedicated to tackling the water challenges of a rapidly changing world. Today, we’ve asked several members of the Columbia Water Center to share their Earth Day reflections. Each individual shared their unique perspective on what Earth Day means to them, and offered insights on how everybody can advocate for water. What will you do to make waves?

Paulina Concha Larrauri

Paulina is a staff associate at Columbia Water Center.

What does Earth Day mean to you as a researcher?
For me, Earth Day reminds people about the consequences—both positive and negative—that our actions have on the environment. Earth Day brought the creation of the Clean Water Act, so as a researcher, it means that the data, models, and information that we work on can inform policies to help preserve our resources and the environment for us and for the future.

What can people do to advocate for water?
The theme for this year’s Earth Day is “End Plastic Pollution,”  as plastic has contaminated rivers and oceans. People are faced with making choices about the things they buy, use, and discard. There is a lot of information about alternatives to reduce and reuse plastics that otherwise are likely to end up in waterways, polluting the environment, and affecting wildlife. Education on this topic is critical, and I encourage people to advocate for regulations to reduce the use of plastics, and promote more eco-friendly alternatives.

James Walter Doss-Gollin

James is an M.S./PhD student in Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

What does Earth Day mean to you as a PhD student?
For many years, we have treated natural disasters (such as floods and wildfires) as enemies to be fought and conquered, and we have triumphantly declared victory on many occasions. However, recent disasters have taught us that declaring victory over nature can inspire people and property to accumulate in risky areas, leading to greater damage when these events occur. To me, Earth Day is a time to celebrate the complexity of nature, remember that we still have a great deal to learn, and view this planet as our home rather than as our enemy.

What can people do to advocate for water?
Watch John Oliver’s take on floods and the U.S. flood insurance program, and ask your representatives what they are doing to reform the National Flood Insurance Program. Additionally, ask your local government to require that new developments in flood-prone areas take out unsubsidized flood insurance. Wetlands can play a crucial role in absorbing rainwater, making floods less extreme or less frequent. Grab your rubber boots and help clean up your local wetland today! Finally, every year, many people around the world are directly affected by floods. Last summer Americans in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico were particularly affected. If you are able, consider traveling to help with the re-building effort, which is very much ongoing, especially in Puerto Rico. If you can’t travel, consider sponsoring someone else who can.

Sylvia Sullivan

Sylvia is a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia Water Center.

What does Earth Day mean to you as a researcher?
Earth Day represents a time to reflect on the motivation for our work. The research culture can burn people out with so many demands to write proposals and articles, attend conferences, and maintain collaborations. Earth Day is a chance to step back from this intensity and renew our drive to do high-quality science.

What can people do to advocate for water?
Greater awareness about water issues and resource limitations more generally should motivate us toward more sustainable living. This means shortening our showers by five minutes, eating leftovers, or turning off the air conditioner when we leave for work. Along with saving resources, living less excessively frees up time and money for other activities we enjoy.

David Farnham

David is a M.S./PhD student, Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

What does Earth Day mean to you as a PhD student?
Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect on what a wondrous place it is that we call home, how much we understand about it, and most importantly, how little we understand about it. It’s a time for me to give thanks for the fact that I am able to spend my days thinking about, and working toward solving issues related to human interaction with the natural environment. Lastly, Earth Day reminds me to communicate the exciting aspects of my research to the non-scientists in my life, to support broader earth science understanding within the general public.

What can people do to advocate for water?
Water touches so many aspects of the human experience, from its vital role within the human body and agriculture, to its role as a medium for travel/recreation and its sacred role within many religions worldwide. There are many water-related issues worthy of advocacy, from protecting natural waterways from industrial pollution, to ensuring access to safe drinking water for global communities. Regardless of the specific issue, advocacy has the most potential when the advocate is knowledgeable about the nuances surrounding the issue that they are championing. I would encourage anyone passionate about advocating for a water-related issue to learn as much as they can about that topic, not just the talking points that support and confirm preconceived opinions. Then form your opinion, craft your arguments, and spread the word among your fellow citizens, residents, and politicians. Finally, don’t be shy about updating your opinions and arguments.

Upmanu Lall

Upmanu is director of the Columbia Water Center and the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

What does Earth Day mean to you as the director of Columbia Water Center?
Seventy percent of the human population is likely going to experience significant issues accessing water, or products that require water, such as food products. Justifiably so, the major environmental concern we talk about is climate change, but the biggest sustainability concern is water. For me, Earth Day is about others realizing the importance of water, and understanding that without water, we cannot maintain a functioning society. Thus, the message on Earth Day should include the fact that if we want life to continue to exist on this planet, we need to keep sight of the critical nature of water resources.

What can peole do to advocate for water?
I would urge people to start asking more, and different, questions. Instead of asking the question, “what can I do to reduce water usage,” I suggest they ask, “what is the right, large-scale solution to these water-related problems?” They need to begin asking these questions generally, and pose them to scientists, decision-makers, and the investors and funders who are responsible for developing and implementing solutions.

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Благовест Георгиев
Благовест Георгиев
6 years ago

I enjoyed your article. The water is so important and keeping usage to minimum. This year slogan is waste, specially plastics. Every factor of environment is important. Happy Earth Day 2018.