On Water

The following was my submission to Kelly Engineering Services for an annual scholarship. Although I was not the winner, my essay had a strong message. I titled it: “On Water: The Social Complexities of a Simple Molecule”

Image of Norway at night from hdqwalls.com.

Water surrounds us; it is in our showers and baths, it washes our hands, cooks our appetizers and entrée. With it, we continue living like nothing ever happened. Without it, the most basic forms of life could not exist. Although water encapsulates seventy percent of our planet, there are people struggling to find it. I believe that engineers have a responsibility to protect humanity; to share knowledge of technological advances with the world, and correct their mistakes in social and political aspects. As of late, issues such as the Flint water crisis and Porter Ranch methane leak reflect engineering at its worst in the US. However, I still hold true that engineers are capable of so much more.

Something that bothers me is the fact that Americans use around 300 liters of water on a daily basis. While we can run the tap at our leisure, there is an ongoing crisis for people in developing regions. It is not unusual for Sub-Saharan Africans to live on 20 liters of water per day.3 As of 2015, 663 million people still do not have access to clean water. Approximately 6-8 million people die from water-related illnesses each year, and most of those affected are children.1 Meanwhile, it would require 3.5 planets to meet the needs of the world given that everyone adopted American or European lifestyles.2 Why is it that on one side of the world people are living in prosperity while on the other people have to fight for basic human resources? The answer is simple. Somewhere, we forgot about our brothers and sisters. Somewhere, we need to stop moving forward and make sure the others have caught up.

Image from the Danish Refugee Council.

Recently a professor of mine traveled to Tanzania and Uganda. When he was there he visited a few of the many refugee camps and sat in on a conference with the Danish Refugee Council. The leaders spoke calmly about the overwhelming number of refugees from South Sudan who were pouring into Uganda from the Northern border.7 One camp was at nearly ten times its capacity. My professor said that people walked tens of miles, some survived physical or sexual attack, and still didn’t give up. They had hope that these camps would provide protection for their families. During the day, he said, children toiled over pit latrines while adults built wells. The most shocking part of the trip was when the sun finally set. After all these people had suffered through, they sang with beautiful voices. As an engineer on a short travel, my professor’s duty was simply to listen and take in everything he could. With the tales that he brought back, he inspired his students to continue on with their journeys and to remember who we’re doing it for.

Photograph of Dean Kamen from Famous Entrepeneurs.

Other engineers have a responsibility to create. For example, Dean Kamen found himself both challenged and intrigued by the water crisis. He teamed up with the Coca-Cola company to distribute his invention, Slingshot Water Purifier, to communities in need across the globe. He traded in some time inventing Coca-Cola Freestyle, the first touch-screen dispenser capable of making 165 different drinks. By 2013 Coca-Cola announced its goal to place 2,000 water purification distillation systems in developing African, Asian, and Latin American communities. According to Popular Science’s article by Tom Foster, “Slingshot can purify more than 250,000 liters of water per year, enough to satisfy the needs of about 300 people. And it can do so with any water source- sewage, seawater, chemical waste- no matter how dirty”.6 It is astounding to think that one person could have such an impact on the world. Several water treatment inventions exist today, from LifeStraw to drinkable books to Solar Cookers. The issue at hand is how to empower people with sustainable water treatment options. Organizations like UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Water Council seek out opportunities to do just that. They try to tilt the scales back so that humanity can live in tandem.

World Health Organization logo from this websitethis website.

In my pocket, and maybe yours, is a little device that contains over 15 rare earth metals.4 It is a cell phone. Its weight is like a reminder to me. Some days it is undeniable guilt, other days it is the advancement of technology. Each intricate piece was mined from deep within the earth and formed into the phone in my hands. In the year 2016, there are more computer gadgets in circulation than there are people.5 It is difficult to invent the next best phone when I am aware that just across the ocean, or a plane trip South, or even a cross-country trip to California will reveal drought in every sense of the word. As Stephen Hawking said, “We are not going to stop making progress or reverse it, so we have to recognize the dangers and control them.” Not only do we as engineers need to look out for humanity, but in addition we need to watch over this earth. It’s the only one we have.


  1. The Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7) drinking water target has been met, but marked disparities persist. (2016, January). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://data.unicef.org/topic/water-and-sanitation/drinking-water/#

2. Water Cooperation. (2013). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://www.unwater.org/water-cooperation-2013/water-cooperation/facts-and-figures/en/

3. Seager, A. (2006, November 10). Dirty water kills 5,000 children a day. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2006/nov/10/water.environment

4. Nield, D. (2015, August 04). Our smartphone addiction is costing the Earth. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://www.techradar.com/news/phone-and-communications/mobile-phones/our-smartphone-addiction-is-costing-the-earth-1299378

5. Boren, Z. D. (2014, October 7). There are officially more mobile devices than people in the world. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/there-are-officially-more-mobile-devices-than-people-in-the-world-9780518.html

6. Foster, T. (2014, June 16). Pure Genius: How Dean Kamen’s Invention Could Bring Clean Water to Millions. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://www.popsci.com/article/science/pure-genius-how-dean-kamens-invention-could-bring-clean-water-millions

7. Uganda. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from https://drc.ngo/where-we-work/east-africa-and-yemen/uganda

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