One drop at a time: Northwestern students tackle water sanitation in a far-flung Indian desert

A few weeks ago, three Masters students left for the remote Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India.

On the docket? Investigating the water that sources 140 villages in the salty, arid desert. As part of the Global and Ecological Health Program, a Master’s-level add-on to Northwestern’s biomedical engineering degree, the program is intended to help students learn to assess and learn from problems firsthand.

This is a skill engineers must learn from the ground up, said Matthew Glucksberg, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick and one of the program’s coordinators.

“You can’t just come in from the outside and expect people to implement your great idea,” Glucksberg said, adding that this is a mistake many make when they are out in the field. “Good solutions are integrated into the way people are already doing things.”

In other words, understanding comes before solutions.

To gain that understanding, the students will be working with the Jai Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF), an organization that oversees these villages. As such, it is geared toward the “ecological, economic and social revival of the region,” according to its website, as well as instituting community ownership and empowering villages to take part in enacting these changes.

One of JBF’s major tenets is developing a water management system that provides clean, fresh water to all villagers. Since rains in the Thar Desert produce only 20-50 centimeters per year, “sweet” water (as opposed to saline) is a precious resource, and often hard to come by.

As this is Northwestern’s preliminary foray into the Rajasthan region, the trip is largely exploratory: what are the problems villagers are currently facing? What secondary problems follow? Which solutions have been tried, and which have not? Perhaps most importantly, what are the primary health concerns?

Diarrhea is a big one.

“A lot of the population doesn’t even know that diarrhea is a problem because they’ve never known anything else,” said Glucksberg. Yet it can be fatal.

Plus, the poverty there is unimaginable, said Kimberly Gray, a McCormick professor of civil and environmental engineering who shares oversight duties with Glucskberg.

The list goes on: water salinity, infectious diseases, bacteria, and fecal runoff from animals and humans.

And all of these problems have been exacerbated by recent population changes.

“These families have lived there for literally hundreds of years and have worked out a very fragile but sustainable relationship with the environment,” said Michael Diamond, an adjunct professor in Northwestern’s biomedical engineering department and president of World Resources Chicago.

Recent government intervention, however, has meant a significant reduction in infant mortality ate. This in turn has meant an exploding population, which the water table is having trouble coping with.

“Our students are starting to do the assessments,” Glucksberg said. “They’re going out to the villages, going to take the samples and do a catalogue to see what the extent of the problem is at this snapshot in time.”

Hopefully these assessments will, over time, provide opportunities to offer solutions. But that is not the main goal, Gray cautions.

“This isn’t just us helping them,” she said. “It’s them helping us in our educational mission.”

Glucksberg concurred, adding that the real goal of the program is student learning. “How do you make your idea stick, and not just leave a bunch of junk in a box?” he said.

Nonetheless, both professors have high hopes for the program.

“My greatest hope is to really develop a long-lasting partnership with JBF such that we can really develop a collaborative learning exchange program,” Gray concluded.

The students in Rajasthan are currently unreachable due to their remote location, but they will return later this summer. Please check back for an update on their progress and an inside look at some of their successes and challenges.

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