Water Crisis is Personal

From Sri Lanka to Tampa, Kala Vairavamoorthy continues to focus on the need for clean water for all.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (March 22, 2011) – Kala Vairavamoorthy’s first memories as a young child in Sri Lanka were at the communal well – his family collecting the water they would need for the day, cleaning their cooking vessels and bathing.


Later as a young academic living with his wife’s family in India, their lives were defined by a sporadic supply of water coming through the pipes. They didn’t know when the water would flow to their home, so the sound of rattling pipes in  the nighttime would wake them and they’d rise no matter the hour to do dishes and store water for future use.


Having traveled to villages in Africa and South Asia that have lived for generations without clean water, Vairavamoorthy has contracted typhoid and other water-borne diseases and has seen people die from those all-too-common scourges.  And in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, he worked for weeks to clean and recharge wells after bodies and debris had been pulled from them.

For Vairavamoorthy, the world water crisis isn’t some academic exercise. It’s personal.

“Having been born in a developing country and all the stories I hear from my relatives who still live in those sorts of conditions and having visited my relatives very often … you understand the difficulties people go through and how important water really is,” Vairavamoorthy said.

 “You do have this very important responsibility to improve these services. You know what the win is. You know you have a huge win if you do these things right. It’s not just that people have water; it means that children can go to school, it empowers the community.  It makes them profitable. It changes their lives if you can provide them with a decent water supply and sanitation system.”

Vairavamoorthy holds the dual roles of founding director for USF’s School of Global Sustainability and the director of the Patel Center for Global Solutions.  Since coming to USF five months ago, Vairavamoorthy has put both the issue of the world’s water and sanitation issues and the university’s efforts to address them on an international stage.


On Tuesday, Vairavamoorthy will be in Cape Town, South Africa as an expert panel member in the World Water Day 2011 official program. He will take part in the debate on 'Water and Cities’ (one of three main Panels of World Water Day), with other panelists from international organizations, including the Global Water Partnership, World Bank and World Water Council.


The event will reach millions across the world and include messages from world leaders throughout the day, including one planned from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Furthermore he will chair a session about transitioning – exploring the options and opportunities for step changes in urban water management in developing countries.


The focus of this year’s World Water Day – an event declared by the United Nations to draw attention on both the present and future challenges of creating a sustainable supply of freshwater for both the developing and developed world – is water for cities.


It’s an issue that Vairavamoorthy has lived his entire life, including now as he takes up residence in Tampa.

His father was a water engineer, and so are his uncles. A brother and a sister also have careers in water science. Water is something of a family business for Vairavamoorthy.


Born in Sri Lanka, his family moved to the Netherlands when he was still a young child and his father was awarded a scholarship at UNESCO-IHE, the education institute where Vairavamoorthy later became a professor and headed up a major global water research project.


Educated in civil engineering and public health, Vairavamoorthy was the director of UNESCO-IHE’s innovative program, SWITCH – a 12-city international effort to confront the looming water problems in both modern and emerging economies and think about new ways to solve current and future problems.

Kala Vairavamoorthy at World Water DayIt was through USF’s partnership with UNESCO-IHE that Vairavamoorthy came to know Daniel Yeh, a USF assistant professor of engineering who has headed up the university’s international water research and training efforts. 

When it came time for USF to find a director for its new School of Global Sustainability, the name that some joke is literally one of the biggest in international water policy quickly made it to the top of the list.


In many ways, Vairavamoorthy has already been here before. The interdisciplinary School of Global Sustainability is a novel, interdisciplinary approach aimed at understanding water issues from the point-of-view of the people who use and manage water systems. Rather than conducting single-subject research that might solve one aspect of a problem, the school is designed to encourage students and researchers to approach a problem from many different angles to find workable solutions.


SWITCH did the same thing, on a global scale. As the European Union’s largest water project, it looked at water challenges in 12 cities around the world and engaged citizens, advocacy groups and municipal water managers on the front-end of the process. The research on potential solutions flowed from their input, making it more likely that the research was put into action rather than just left on the shelf, Vairavamoorthy said.


SWITCH’s focus is on the next 30 to 50 years and the way the world’s urban areas manage water has to change to cope with population growth and inevitable shortages of this finite resource. In large measure, the water systems of modern day cities are largely based on old systems of pumping water into cities and wastewater out that didn’t have to address the needs of explosive population growth and water shortages.


“The irony of today is we are building our systems based on those 19th Century technologies,” Vairavamoorthy said. “It’s institutionalized. It’s in our textbooks.”


The hope is that by engaging cities now, when they can plan for a day when population growth outstrips water supplies, that life-threatening crisis will be averted. The approach is being tested in Dunedin, where the Pinellas County city is now affiliated with SWITCH and is first steps in helping the Tampa Bay region prepare for an uncertain future.


Another step came just last month in Resilient Tampa Bay, a three-day conference which united local water officials with water leaders from the Netherlands who have unique expertise in managing water in the low-lying country. Given the Tampa Bay region’s geography, future threats from sea level rise, urban flooding and storm surge brought by more frequent and intense storms is a possibility that could threaten the region’s future.


And the more immediate concern for the region is water scarcity as population growth has outstripped water resources.


“We can start investing in strategies that are sensible anyway,” he said. “Trying to manage systems in a much more intelligent way irrespective of what might happen is a good plan anyway.”


His work has taken him to nearly every continent, from Africa to Central America and across southern Asia. In 2004, a tsunami hit his homeland and as the death toll across South Asia climbed into the hundreds of thousands, Vairavamoorthy returned to Sri Lanka to help.


Kala Vairavamoorthy in Sri LankaHe traveled to villages that had been wiped clean off the map by the tidal waves and every bit of infrastructure destroyed. People can survive a killer earthquake and even a massive wall of water, but they can’t go for more than a few days without clean water.


Some wells had been inundated by the tsunami’s sea water and debris, others were contaminated by bodies washed into them. The wells had to be cleared and disinfected, and then recharged.


Vairavamoorthy was led in the design of water supply and sanitation systems in the refugee camps in the northern part of the country. Knowing that he would have to leave in a few weeks, he taught young people in the camps how to use water testing systems to make sure the camps’ water was clean and other technology that could help them locate the sources of clean water.


“It was an opportunity for me to really put into practice everything I had studied and learned about, water and sanitation for people in a really difficult position,” Vairavamoorthy said. “But for me it was also an opportunity for me to work where I was from. It was my community in the northeast of Sri Lanka.


 “It was a terrible event but it brought out the best in a lot of people.”


On Tuesday in Cape Town, Vairavamoorthy urged developed economies to rethink how they think about water.


The current mindset that water is there to use and use once, he said, is out-dated and unsustainable. Meanwhile the best new ideas on how to use and reuse water might actually come from booming new cities in the developing world that have no choice but to use the latest methods to keep up with population growth.

“We (in the developed world) don’t have that imperative to change,” Vairavamoorthy said.

“We know what we need to do, we just don’t do it. Institutions inhibit a lot of these changes. Where it’s not engrained in the thinking there is an opportunity to change the mindset.”

Developing nations have an advantage is that they can incorporate newer water management systems and design their urban growth with conservation in mind. The hope is that once they start to show success, longer-established cities will follow suit, the panel agreed.

The shift in thinking, though, isn’t relegated to water management alone. Vairavamoorthy said cities need to start looking at water – and wastewater especially - as more than just a health necessity, but a business opportunity. An example might be companies who truck treated wastewater to neighborhoods for lawn watering, something that has happened here in Tampa when severe droughts caused sharp watering restrictions.

“There are opportunities in providing different quality of water for different uses,” Vairavamoorthy said.  “It could be self-sustaining financially. You start seeing small business and entrepreneurs seeing how they can make money.

“The water system is like any other business. You can generate lots and lots of things out of it that are market driven … providing you have that mindset.”

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.