New research center aims to alleviate global water crisis

    Be it flooding in Chicago or a shortage in the Middle East, water has never ceased to be a problem around the world. However, the Northwestern Center for Water Research is the university’s latest attempt to help solve the global water crisis.

    Established last September with its office in the O.T. Hogan Biological Sciences Building, the Center will bring together NU’s researchers focused on water management technology and policies to solve water challenges both locally and globally. The center is also a partner of “Current,” an initiative by mayor Rahm Emanuel to make Chicago a leader in the water economy with advanced water management technology.

    Seth Snyder, a McCormick professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said NU’s expertise in hydrology is essential in designing water systems.

    He added that the University’s strength in chemistry also helps in designing membranes for desalination, a process that removes excess salt in seawater. This technology is especially important for Arab land where fresh water is extremely scarce.

    “In the Middle East, the population is growing so fast that the water cannot support the number of people,” Snyder said.

    Even in Israel, where the technology for treating wastewater for irrigation is already advanced, NU is still seeking ways to improve on existing technology, such as developing the sustainability criteria for the water systems, according to Snyder. NU partners with Tel Aviv University in Israel for such projects.

    Liliana Hernandez Gonzalez, a graduate student leading a research on urban green spaces such as the Chicago Botanic Gardens at the Center, started her five-year project to develop green infrastructure for urban storm-water management. During Spring Quarter, she will install sensors measuring water quality and soil moisture.

    “We can start obtaining and analyzing the data as soon as the sensors are installed,” Gonzalez said. “Then we can develop hydrology models.”

    She is also working with the Nature Conservancy, an American charitable environmental organization based in Virginia, and collaborating with experts in hydrology, environmental engineering and ecology.

    The Center also hopes to educate students on water issues around the world. All students are welcome to attend classes and symposiums organized by the Center. A new special topic course “Water in Israel and the Middle East” is open in Spring Quarter for both undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities, natural sciences and engineering.

    “We are going to work with student service organizations as well, because of all the students that are interested in water issues or making contributions to people who don’t have safe water supplies around the word,” Packman said.

    Snyder said that he thinks opening the research center is the right thing to do since water crisis is becoming increasingly problematic due to economic development and population growth.

    “The impact we’ll see is going to be generational. The issue is going to be a much higher priority next generation than this generation,” Snyder said.


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