The Urgency of Water: Women, Climate, and Sustaining the World

Every year on March 22, people across the globe recognize World Water Day. This year, the United Nations announced that its theme for the day will focus on an often overlooked resource that accounts for about 30% of all readily available freshwater in the world: “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible.” It is a precious resource that goes to the very core of survival for about 2.5 billion people who depend solely on groundwater — the underground water found in the cracks and spaces between soil, sand, and rock — for their basic daily water needs. 

The biggest threats to groundwater — contamination and overuse to the point of depletion — are a direct result of human activity, and the devastating results tend to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable groups. However, perils to the world’s water supply are vast and intractable, with issues of scarcity, contamination, and, in terms of climate change, inundation.

Capitalizing on the expertise of leading scientists, Barnard College presented a day of hybrid programming to explore the water access imperative and how it applies to the lives of women and girls. The collection of learning and experiential opportunities drew many to campus; hundreds more attended virtually.

The day started with a presentation by Sandra Goldmark — Barnard’s director of campus sustainability and climate action and an associate professor of professional practice in theatre — on creating a circular campus by reducing waste and emissions while supporting equity and community resilience.

This was followed by a demonstration by Martin Stute, adjunct senior research scientist in geochemistry at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the Alena Wels Hirschorn ’58 and Martin Hirschorn Professor in Environmental and Applied Sciences and co-chair of Barnard’s Environmental Science Department. His program, entitled “The Groundwater That Sustains Us All,” was designed to spark interest and understanding. Using small plexiglass tanks filled with sand as a tool to visualize groundwater flow and transport in an interactive way, Stute demonstrated how surface waters and groundwater interact, how groundwater flows much slower than water in rivers, how groundwater is a shared resource, and how pollutants spread widely in the subsurface and can affect water quality.

Guest lecturer, award-winning environmental journalist, and author Cynthia Barnett gave a writing and career workshop about environmental journalism designed specifically for Barnard and Columbia undergraduate students and high school students.

Water event 2022. 2.jpg
President Beilock onstage with environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett

The day also featured a lecture by LDEO adjunct senior research scientist and Barnard geochemistry professor Brian Mailloux about his project to monitor coronavirus in wastewater on campus, and a student panel on environmental activism with an introduction by Barnard associate director of sustainability Leslie Raucher. Student leader Delaney Michaelson ’24 led the talk, emphasizing the power and responsibility to actively call on government leaders to respond to the climate crisis.

The marquee session was a conversation between Barnard president Sian Leah Beilock and Barnett.

Their discussion was the spring signature event for the Barnard Year of Science, a yearlong celebration of the College’s leadership in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), underscoring Barnard’s expert faculty, its symbiotic relationship with Columbia, and its location in New York City, which makes it singularly positioned to offer unparalleled opportunities to women who will become tomorrow’s STEM leaders. 

text saying "Year of Science" surrounded by various scientific paraphernalia, such as beakers, gears, and nuclear symbols