June 5, 2017

The hills are covered in thick, green foliage. Howler monkeys swing through the canopy, while brightly colored birds and butterflies perch on the branches of the lush forest. Water flows down the mountains in great cascades—a result of the 84 inches of rain that fall here annually.

Costa Rica seems like a strange place to study water insecurity. And yet, there are challenges in this waterscape: population growth, increasing agricultural demands for water and land, and a lack of infrastructure and policy to protect natural resources from contamination. The average person in San Juan de Peñas Blancas faces tough questions about their water supply: Is it safe? Is it affordable? Is it reliable?

Texas A&M students explored the vibrant rain forests of Costa Rica as part of a 10-day service learning trip to study the global water crisis.

These questions are at the heart of Wendy Jepson’s research. Jepson is a professor of geography in Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences and the lead researcher on the Water Security Initiative (WSI), part of the university’s Institute for Sustainable Communities and Environmental Grand Challenges Program. The WSI seeks to address the global water crisis through research, teaching and engagement with local communities. Its focus is household water and sanitation as well as governance, policy and climate change resilience.

Water is a hot topic globally and at Texas A&M. In a comprehensive report, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that access to high-quality water is not just an agricultural or human health issue, but a major peace and security issue. By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to live in countries or regions with ‘absolute’ water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world’s population could be under ‘stress’ conditions. The polluting of clean water sources further threatens access to safe drinking water and increases the tension between water needs of people, agriculture, nature and industry.

Solving the complexity of the global water crisis will take the brightest minds from many disciplines. “Through the initiative, we’re creating a larger community to tackle these questions,” Jepson said. “The initiative will catalyze research by Texas A&M faculty working around the world to help researchers from different disciplines find each other and explore these issues with greater synergy.”

Deep in the Wells of Texas

The issues the WSI researchers explore aren’t just global—they are local, too. Much of Jepson’s research involves water security in Texas, where rapid population growth, land development and climate change means that some communities in the south and west are facing clean water shortages.

“Water security is a complicated issue and one that has not been well understood over the long term,” said Jepson. “We’ve had a way to measure food insecurity for 30 years, but no accurate way to measure household water issues for poor communities. Historically it’s been measured by access—do you have piped water or not? That’s an important question, but there are many other dimensions that we need to consider: affordability, reliability, safety and accessibility. There is a whole suite of issues.”

  • Research

    The Texas A&M University Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Juan de Penas Blancas is next to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest (Bosque Externo de los Ninos), a private nature preserve that covers almost 54,000 acres of primary and secondary forest.

  • Explore

    Texas A&M students hiked up mountains to springs that supplied the town’s water.

  • Conservation

    A lack of adequate infrastructure and policy is one of the greatest threats to protecting natural resources.

  • Inspire

    “The preciousness of water is the common denominator for all of us. You can go a long time without electricity. You can go a long time without food. You cannot survive without water.” - Judy Nunez, College of Geosciences professor

Working with colleagues from a variety of fields such as anthropology and public health, Jepson and others are pooling their resources to create a metric for use by governments and NGOs seeking to address water needs anywhere in the world. With funding from the National Science Foundation and a Fulbright Scholarship, Jepson is currently testing her metrics and gathering data in northeastern Brazil. Part of her work also includes teaching graduate courses and advising students on water security as a visiting professor at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Brazil.

Getting Their Feet Wet

Teaching is an essential part of the Water Security Initiative. That’s where Judy Nunez comes in. A professor and director of student recruitment in the College of Geosciences, Nunez launched a high-impact, first-year class around the topic of water in 2015. During the course, students participated in a learning community and developed team building, communication and other soft skills while exploring a water issue. Such courses, said Jepson, provide a rich experience for students that boosts enrollment, retention and successful degree completion.

For the course, Nunez selected the book “Wine to Water” by Doc Hendley as the common text, about one man’s inspiring response to the global water crisis. The class met weekly throughout the year to discuss water issues, such as the turmoil in Flint, Michigan. The course culminated in a 10-day service-learning trip to Costa Rica in the spring.

The College of Geosciences underwrote most of the cost of the trip to Costa Rica, though students paid their own airfare. The total cost per student for the 10-day trip was about $1,200. While in Costa Rica, students stayed at the Texas A&M University Soltis Center for Research and Education in San Juan de Peñas Blancas. Students worked with and learned from the local community water officials: They hiked up mountains to springs that supply the town’s water to test for purity; visited a local school to teach youngsters about sanitation, hygiene and conservation; and studied the area’s wastewater systems to find ways to improve it.

The class deeply impacted the 18 student participants. “They came back changed people, and then they said, ‘What’s next?’” said Nunez. In addition to starting a Wine to Water student organization at Texas A&M to raise awareness about global water concerns, they also organized a Brazos River cleanup event and visited Bryan-College Station schools to teach kids about water conservation.

The following year, the cohort served as mentors to a new group of students enrolled in Nunez’s class. And this spring, 12 of the students from the original group traveled to the Dominican Republic independent of the university to build and distribute ceramic water filters to households in poor communities. “By the time these students graduate, I expect they will have three to four international water-related study service experiences,” Nunez said. “My heart is in this program completely because it’s so much more than a resume enhancement for students. It partners them with local communities to improve the lives of the people living there.”

Nunez and Jepson, with a new cohort of students, will continue the work in Costa Rica in 2018.

  • The Water Crisis

    Increasing agricultural demands threaten the availability of clean water.

  • Instilling Leadership

    The journey to Costa Rica greatly impacted the students, who took what they learned back to the Brazos Valley, where they started a new student organization, organized a Brazos River cleanup event and visited Bryan-College Station Schools to teach kids about water conservation.

  • Impacting Communities

    The Wine to Water program partners Texas A&M students with local communities to improve the lives of the people living there.

  • Searching for Solutions

    Solving the global water crisis will take increased research and innovation.

Water is Life

“This class has been my favorite thing about Texas A&M so far,” said Emma Leppard ’20, who participated in the Costa Rica trip in April 2017. It was her first time out of the country. “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “This class opened up a whole new world to me.”

The experience even shaped Leppard’s future plans: The straight-A student is planning to graduate a year early, then pursue a master’s degree in hydrology. Her dream is to work for the Lower Colorado River Authority, which enhances the lives of Texans through water stewardship.

“They students came back changed people,” said Judy Nunez, a professor in the College of Geosciences.

While she feels the trip was definitely worth the price, the cost was a challenge. “My family already pays for my tuition and they couldn’t easily pay for this, too,” she said. To attend, she borrowed from her college savings and is working hard this summer to replenish those funds before the fall semester, while also taking classes.

Grace Cone ’20 and Adam Cox ’20 also participated in the Costa Rica trip this spring. Like Leppard, the experience impacted their career aspirations: Both plan to work within the energy industry to reduce its impact on the environment.

“I’m super passionate about the environment,” said Cox. “Most people don’t even know that there is a water crisis or that there is something we can do about it.”

Cone agreed. “Before this class, I didn’t realize how large of a problem it was and how many people it affects.”

“Even in Texas, we are using water at a higher rate than we should be,” Cox added. “Aquifers in the south aren’t being refreshed as quickly as they are being depleted. In the future, water conservation is something that everyone in America will need to accept, not just people in places like Darfur and South Sudan.”

Nunez agreed. “The preciousness of water is the common denominator for all of us. You can go a long time without electricity. You can go a long time without food. You cannot survive without water.”

You can support Jepson's research and the work of the Water Security Initiative. Funds are needed to supply Jepson with much-needed graduate assistant support and to underwrite students and staff participating in the service learning trips.

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