Across the United States, water has increasingly become a major source of discussion, and the data explains why. In 2023, for example, 26% of the global population does not have access to safe drinking water, and 46% of the world lacks safely managed sanitation, according to the most recent drought report from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Eight percent of the contiguous United States has suffered severe to extreme drought.
For New York Water Week (March 18-24), Barnard connected three continents — Africa, Europe, South America — in an interactive dialogue addressing issues of water impact, management, and sustainability.
The March 21 hybrid event — “Water We Waiting For?” — was organized by Brian Mailloux, co-chair of the Environmental Science Department and professor of environmental science, in partnership with the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), whose water-mining project was greenlit by the European Commission in 2020.
The participating water hubs — members of academic and research centers speaking from Nairobi, Kenya, and São Paulo, Brazil — discussed water security challenges, private sector directives, and clean-energy technology solutions distinct to their regions, which are on the frontline of climate change. Barnard students had the opportunity to ask questions during the event in a virtual chatroom.
As an environmental scientist, Mailloux understands the well of information that water can hold for researchers across disciplines. In 2021, when researchers were still experimenting with new ways to monitor COVID-19, Mailloux teamed up with assistant professor of biology JJ Miranda to source raw wastewater from Barnard to detect the virus.
“We are so excited to host this U.N. side session, which is literally bring[ing] together people from across the world to work on [water issues],” said Mailloux. “This shows our commitment as a college to working with others to solve crises facing us locally, nationally, and globally.”
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda A. Bell, who is also the Claire Tow Professor of Economics, gave remarks to open the plenary session.
“At Barnard, we train women to be leaders in the world, educating them to tackle issues — big and small,” said Provost Bell. “There is no more important issue, perhaps, and no more of an important time to tackle what all of you are bringing to us today. We at [the College] look forward to seeing what is produced today from the thinking of so many committed minds.”
Students are realizing the importance of these issues and looking for classes in these areas. Barnard is creating the leaders necessary to tackle these problems.
A Milestone Event
With the U.N. 2023 Water Conference being the first of its kind in 50 years, the Barnard sessions mobilized each water hub (learn more about them in the sidebar) to commit to actionable targets that will contribute to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) — as well as shape the Water Action Agenda.
“In the U.S., we might not hear much about the SDG in the media or other places, but they are critical for achieving a sustainable future and used to guide resources and action worldwide,” said Mailloux. “With [Barnard’s] location and connection to Columbia, we have the opportunity to lead in this area.”
Accelerating Change on the Ground
The online forum was followed by an in-person panel of economists, policymakers, and groundwater experts who charged the audience with one goal: actionable output.
“When we think of concrete steps forward, it’s the local decision-makers that have to be empowered, educated, and given the tools to select where and when they should be used. This is a big part of how we can build policies,” said Daniel Osgood, a panelist and the lead scientist of the financial instruments sector team at Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “I think we can do a lot by simply changing the way that we do our reporting on these big global projects by asking the right questions to be reported.”
Other panelists included:
- Kitty van der Heijden, director-general for international cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands;
- Roos Goedhart, research coordinator at TU Delft’s Water for Impact program;
- Gordana Kranjac-Berisavljevic, professor of agricultural engineering and deputy director of the West African Centre for Water, Irrigation, and Sustainable Agriculture (WACWISA); and
- Radhika Iyengar TC’11, director of the Education Sector of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia Climate School’s Earth Institute.
While the rippling effects of the global water crisis — drought, food insecurity, and displacement — have shaped the theme of “accelerating change” for this year’s World Water Day (March 22), a message of resilience resonated.
“The fact that you have come together, here [at Barnard], as research communities to look at practical solutions to make differences in people’s lives is incredibly meaningful,” said van der Heijden. “Change happens on the ground — we need practitioners on the ground.”
Barnard Moves the Planet Forward
Barnard’s bold commitment to its Climate Action Vision doesn’t stop at water.
Redefining the paradigms of climate leadership, the College provides students with coursework, multidisciplinary majors, and research opportunities centering the climate and the natural world. The upcoming fall semester includes 60 courses that engage with environmental sustainability.
“We see that climate change, water, and sustainability are now present throughout the Barnard curriculum in almost every department,” said Mailloux. “Students are realizing the importance of these issues and looking for classes in these areas. Barnard is creating the leaders necessary to tackle these problems.”