Dr. Sarah Dickson, P.Eng., has a dream: that every human being on the planet has access to clean water. As the program director for Water Without Borders, the associate professor and associate chair in civil engineering at McMaster University has a deep understanding of the scope and complexity of the problem matched by a passion for developing holistic solutions.
Water Without Borders is a collaborative graduate program in water, environment and health between McMaster and the United Nations University that takes a trans-disciplinary and global approach to the water quality problem.
“As many as 780 million people go without access to safe water on a daily basis, and 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation; the two issues cannot be separated,” says Dr. Dickson, whose research focuses on the input, transport and fate of contaminants in groundwater systems. This is of particular importance in Canada, where more than 25 per cent of Canadians depend on groundwater for their domestic water supply.
“If it was just a technical problem it would be solved by now, but it isn’t. It’s much more complicated because there are so many human and environmental influences, from the agricultural, industrial and geographic to the political, civic and even philosophical if you ask the question, do we have a right to clean water?”
Because so many interests and disciplines are involved, Dr. Dickson says that solving the clean water problem requires a collaborative approach of unprecedented proportions.
“The consensus is that we need to take a new and entirely holistic approach, and it’s a matter of learning how,” she says. “Water Without Borders is one step in the right direction in terms of developing the next generation of practitioners and researchers with this skill set. We are also training engineering students to work across disciplines and in a global context.”
However, Dr. Dickson says that it’s important for every human being who wants clean water to play their part because this isn’t a problem that the “experts” can solve alone. “We are living in many ways that simply cannot be sustained,” she says. “Making the necessary changes could result in major impacts on industrial users but it could also mean no longer watering your lawn.”