Where currents meet

07-13-2011

If you want to be in the middle of the world’s greatest concentration of fresh surface water, you come to Michigan. But if you want to join the world’s conversation about water security and technology, you go to Singapore in early July. It’s where International Water Week—one of just two or three events of its caliber—attracted a record 13,500 participants from 99 countries this year.

I accompanied the MSU delegation to Singapore’s International Water Week, representing the university by signing memoranda of understanding with two universities there and with the country’s Public Utilities Board (PUB). The memoranda are general acknowledgements of our intent to find areas in which to partner with the PUB, the National University of Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University, each of which is becoming a center of expertise in water technology. We’re looking at research and development, education, and other potential partnership opportunities.

Alliances such as these will be helpful as MSU grows its current $85 million portfolio in water science, technology, and policy toward what we view as the critical intersections of water with health, climate, and food security. In so doing, we aim to lead development of Michigan’s own “blue-green economy” in partnership with businesses, foundations, and government entities. It’s a part of MSU’s commitment to take the best of Michigan to the world and to bring the best of the world to Michigan.

Michigan State has much to offer in the area of water knowledge, including research into microbial fuel cells, water microbiology, and advanced membrane technology.

Blessed as we are in Michigan by an abundance of freshwater, we are equally burdened by the necessity of protecting it. Singapore’s emergence as a leader in water technology is necessitated by its water insecurity—relying as it does on neighboring Malaysia for much of its supply, plus a combination of conserving its modest domestic supply, desalination of seawater, and purification of wastewater.

It’s in the latter category that MSU researchers, led by Institute of Water Research Director Joan Rose, already have developed close working relationships with colleagues in Singapore. Now, we mean to broaden and deepen those linkages and strengthen MSU’s position as a leader in the global water technology community.

It’s easy to take water for granted from where we sit, but more than a billion people around the globe lack access to clean water and thousands perish daily for lack of it or from waterborne disease. We see headlines daily about drought and its effects on regions around the world, including parts of the United States. Many of the world’s most important underground sources are being over-pumped, and MSU scientists, in fact, are at work today studying the critical High Plains Aquifer that supports nearly a third of the irrigated land in the United States.

Most of the world’s major river systems are shared by more than one country, generating the potential for conflict. Here is another area—that of policy—where MSU’s broad expertise comes to bear. We in the Great Lakes region already have gained experience negotiating water use agreements not only between U.S. states, but with Canada as well, to share a resource so critical to the agriculture, manufacturing, and travel industries.

In addition to attending scholarly and policy sessions revolving around International Water Week in Singapore, we took the opportunity to meet with others who are doing pioneering work in water technology to discuss potential partnerships in technology development, education, and environmental areas. On the corporate side, we met with representatives from Siemens and GE, which have significant presences in water technology markets, and with Coca-Cola. We also toured sites including Singapore’s Marina Barrage, a dam built across the mouth of a freshwater channel to separate it from the ocean and conserve precious freshwater.

Water will become an increasingly valuable commodity in the coming years, and corporations and even nations are preparing for this reality. As it has with food and health, Michigan State will be there, too, making a difference in Michigan and around the world as a valued knowledge partner.

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