solving global water challenges

Water Engineering

The Clearest Solution:
Rethinking Water as a Renewable Resource

It covers nearly 70 percent of the Earth's surface. More than 326 million trillion gallons of water fill the oceans, rivers, lakes, and ice caps that hold our planet's ecosystem in delicate balance. It is essential to the survival of our species, yet less than one percent of water on Earth is easily accessible and safe for drinking.

While the amount of fresh water on the planet has remained fairly constant over time—continually recycled through the atmosphere and back into our cups—Earth's population has exploded. This means that each year, challenges surrounding the quantity and quality of global freshwater supplies intensify. According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. Today, nearly 750 million people around the world are drinking water that is likely contaminated. In addition, a staggering 2.5 billion people worldwide lack proper sanitation. In developing countries, as much as 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions.

Due to a myriad of environmental, political, economic, and social forces, freshwater scarcity remains an abstract concept to many and a stark reality for many others. Humans are inefficient water users, and our current way of life is far from sustainable. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world's population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.

But these problems are no longer relegated to the developing world. Our collective future quite literally depends upon finding sustainable solutions. Researchers at the University of Illinois are not only leading the way in providing solutions, but they are also changing the paradigm through which the world—and the communities of our state and nation—approach the water crisis.

A New Approach

How researchers at the University of Illinois are leading the way
toward solving the world's greatest water challenges.

The University of Illinois maintains a longstanding commitment to water research, education, engagement, and development that has focused efforts not only in our home state and Midwest region, but worldwide as well. In Fiscal Year 2015, Illinois researchers were involved in about $45 million in funded water research projects—from helping communities balance water supply and demand, to developing novel technologies, to educating and influencing the decisions of policy makers for the well-being of our nation. The Urbana campus is home to a rich, interactive community of world-renowned scholars, who are willing to work across disciplines to solve the water challenges we face in the United States and as a global community.

“In western culture, we like to use things that are clean. And when we use them, we like to dispose of them. We pay someone to take our waste away, and we don’t like to think about where it goes after that,” explains Benito J. Mariñas, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois. "This has been our approach to thinking about water, but we need to change that way of thinking. It simply is not sustainable in today's world.”

Traditionally, research related to solving global water challenges has been done across three interfaces: food (food security), energy, and health. Unique to the Illinois approach is the inclusion of sanitation as an equally important piece of the puzzle. Why? Because sanitation touches each of the other interfaces in critical ways.

solving global water challenges

"I like to remind people when we talk about water with those three interfaces, that sanitation is centric," says Mariñas. "If we don't fix the sanitation problems first, we are not going to be able to work on the other three interfaces. We are not going to be able to produce safe food, we are going to be wasting the energy in used water, and we are going to keep affecting the health of people all over the world."

Mariñas leads the Safe Global Water Institute (SGWI) on the Illinois campus, which uses a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach to address the problem of safe water and sanitation in places where people don’t normally have access to solutions to these serious problems. According to Marinas, the goal goes beyond providing safe water to millions who don’t have that privilege. The focus is to see water as a renewable resource.

“We would like to eliminate the term wastewater out of the vocabulary because it really is a resource,” Mariñas said. “We are developing the engineering technologies to be able to clean the water so we can use it again, and also to actually use some of those ‘waste’ materials that are already in the water. For instance, the organic matter gives you biogas which can provide energy and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus—a ton of it. If we can organize the sanitation system (both urban and rural) to obtain the energy from concentrated organic matter, then we not only begin solving sustainability problems, but we also create new business opportunities for biofuels.”

Mariñas and the SGWI (formerly WaterCAMPWS, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center), have developed a global consortium of partners and researchers, educational institutions, local stakeholders, governmental officials, municipalities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the targeting East African countries to develop real solutions. They have also mobilized key people at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Makerere University in Uganda, and others on the U of I campus (Molecular and Cellular Biology Professor Joanna Shisler, CEE Professor Jeremy Guest, Business Administration Professor Madhu Viswanathan, and Chemistry Professor Yi Lu) who offer expertise in microbiology, engineering, business, chemistry, and sociology to help with the effort.

solving global water challenges

SGWI has a team of graduate students, and each year incorporates a trip to Eastern Africa into an undergraduate class, CEE 449, to help develop and implement solutions to the challenges of water and health, sanitation and energy, and renewable energy. The mindset for sanitation in these areas is often merely ridding the waste. In motivating residents to improve sanitation efforts, the SGWI is working on developing a centralized treatment center, making it into a business model where it can turn waste into a resource such as for fertilizing fields.

“In order to provide safe water, we need to solve the sanitation challenge,” Mariñas reiterates. “We are only going to solve the sanitation challenge if we look at it from a different perspective. That is what our people do. We look at water as a renewable resource. There is money that could be made out of this, but we need to have the technologies that will allow it. You are going to find people with a passion and a vision for this at Illinois. In the laboratories, we are thriving because we attract the best students with our passion for solving these challenges."

One of those people with a passion for improving the lives of others with safe water is Ann-Perry Witmer, a teaching associate in the Illinois Engineering First-Year Experience (IEFX) who leads two courses that focus on sustainable international development. After teaching the ENG 398 Honduras Water Project course for the past few years, Witmer saw the need for a course that helps students understand how working in interdisciplinary teams can lead to projects that are more beneficial to people in developing countries.

So she teamed up with faculty from across the University of Illinois to develop a course titled Sustainable International Development that is listed across five disciplines: engineering, urban planning, anthropology, community health, and global studies. Students in the course track the progress and process of an Engineers Without Borders irrigation project in the village of Lumbisi, Ecuador.

“The thing that we really focus on with the idea of sustainable infrastructure with the irrigation system is finding something that the community will embrace, adapt, and build upon. That doesn’t happen if you try to impose your own understanding of water,” Witmer said. “You really have to have a sense of who you’re working with and what they expect before you can understand what water means to them, and then you have to find a solution that fits within their comfort level.”

solving global water challenges

"It is critical that we understand the cultures and economies where we intervene," echoes Mariñas. "Even if we think we may have a very good idea, if we don’t learn these aspects of the community, we may never have success in implementing the technologies we develop. We want to make sure that generations of our students gain experience with understanding not just the technical challenges, but also with understanding the communities for which we are trying to design these processes."

SWGI, the Honduras Water Project, and the Sustainable International Development course are just a few of many are just a couple of many efforts at the University of Illinois focused on clean water. Funded by British Petroleum, professors David Cahill (materials science and engineering) and Jeff Moore (chemistry) are working on membrane separating technologies with a number of benefits—from removing some of the organics so they can be sent back to nature—to improving that water so it can be used as a water source.

“Many of the oil companies are now approaching us, as our water experts are finding ways to solve the separation problems," says Cahill. "In many situations, we simply want to return the water to nature. In other situations—such as in areas of water scarcity—the question is, ‘Can we treat the water and then use it as a freshwater source?’"

A study led by CEE professors Ximing Cai and Megan Konar revealed that three of the most-tapped aquifers in the United States are overdrawing from these resources, which could lead to difficult choices affecting not only domestic food security but also international markets.

“There is a tradeoff between the environment and economic profit, and there is a trade-off between the current use and future use. The environment is affected, the food markets are affected, the resources for fisheries are affected,” Konar says. “As we’re seeing in California, they were really lucky to have aquifers to rely on during a drought. We don’t want to deplete these aquifer supplies, so that when we get into these drought situations, we have some emergency backup.”

Others, like Gary Eden and Sung-Jin Park, are using ozone as a cost-effective method for millions around the world to quickly purify water for drinking and bathing. Their company, EP Purification, uses microplasma technology to generate ozone (O3) to aggressively remove bacterial and viral pathogens, as well as environmentally-harmful chemicals, in water. The benefits of ozone, one of the strongest disinfectants available commercially, have been known for more than a century. But until recently, the gas has been too expensive and unreliable for large-scale use.

solving global water challenges

“From an environmental standpoint, ozone is the ultimate because it comes from air that we breathe and what’s left over reverts back to O2,” Eden explains. “Over the years, we have been using a number of chemicals to disinfect water, and we pay them little attention. They just go down the drain and the water treatment facility has to deal with it. Much of the chlorine (and other chemicals) is not recovered and simply flows into streams and rivers.”

In many developing countries, water is transferred from a stream or well to a cistern. Using EP Purification technology, which can be purchased for around $150, water can be safe for drinking and washing the next day. Because ozone is so aggressive, it significantly cuts the amount of detergent and softener required and eliminates the need for hot water. In the future, the company also plans to work with manufacturers to install a module inside washing machines. The elimination of the hot water cycle could save consumers up to 30 percent on their utility bill, according to Eden.

solving global water challenges

"We have a culture in water research that is truly interdisciplinary," says Andreas Cangellaris, Dean of the College of Engineering at Illinois. "And it is a true culture, not just because it is a good mechanism to get funding, but because we believe that our students benefit the most in their educational experience by being exposed to disciplines beyond the bounds of engineering. Our students are working with faculty in business, agriculture, health sciences, and the social sciences, among others."

According to Cangellaris, students at Illinois are getting a much more robust educational experience by being truly involved in interdisciplinary research. As often happens in academia, faculty know that working together across disciplines can make it easier to find funding. But then when the funding comes, they tend to separate. Agencies like the NSF, who have committed millions of dollars to water-related research at Illinois, ensure that these interdisciplinary ties remain strong.

"Getting to work with the students here at Illinois has been tremendous," says Jeremy S. Guest, assistant professor of environmental engineering. "The students are not only of the highest possible caliber, but it’s also their passion and drive to impact the world in a positive way. At Illinois, through our interdisciplinary programs and other research opportunities on campus, we have the opportunity to find the intersection between global impact and fundamental science and research that positions them to be leaders in developing solutions for the 21st century."

solving global water challenges

"The reason we are leaders in the area of water research is because of our approach," adds Mariñas. "Our approach is creating the best professionals; people who are really having an impact on water challenges. We have established our strategic goal to be organizing ourselves to produce the generations that will solve the water crises that we are facing increasingly in the world. But not because we are looking at it in the same way that others are. The secret is to remember that it is a renewable resource."

As such, it follows that engineers must begin changing the approach to the management of water in the United States, and developing the technologies that will allow progress to be made. It is very difficult to change the industrial inertia in a place like the U.S., but unique opportunities do exist in places like Southeast Asia or Africa, where the infrastructure is not yet fully developed. A unique opportunity exists in these areas to innovate (and reverse-innovate) before they make the mistake of developing a water management system similar to ours. From here we may be able to truly change the way we address the issue of water management in the United States and other parts of the developed world.

solving global water challenges

"If we focus on a developing community context, we have the advantage of not being locked into the old centralized structure for wastewater treatment," explains Guest. "And so we can really think more outside the box and remove a lot of the constraints that limit our ability to develop novel technologies."

"That is why we are so involved globally," adds Mariñas. "It's not only that we recognize a need to help the people who are suffering in other places—it's that these areas actually give us a perfect laboratory to develop revolutionary ideas that U.S. industries are not so open minded about. It's more difficult to change. Renewable water has to be revolutionary change. It cannot only be about producing technologies that are more efficient. It has to involve taking a step back and looking at the water cycle, and what we can do to make water scarcity a problem of the past."


Contributors: Josh Nielsen ( | Mike Koon ( | Bill Bell (