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‘No one is safe from water insecurity’

Experts available to discuss water crisis in Texas

EVANSTON, Ill. — Cracked pipes, frozen wells and offline water treatment plants have driven Texas into a massive water crisis. As drinking water becomes increasingly scarce, residents have resorted to boiling icicles and dirty snow.

Three Northwestern University water experts — Sera YoungAaron Packman and Julius Lucks — are available to comment on Texas’ water shortage, including water insecurity, infrastructure and the importance of inexpensive water quality tests for individuals. 

A global expert on food and water insecurity, Young is an associate professor of anthropology and global health in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She has led efforts to develop the Household Water InSecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale, a cross-culturally valid tool to measure household water insecurity. Young can be reached directly at sera.young@northwestern.edu.

Quote from Professor Young:

“The Texas water crisis shows us that no one anywhere is safe from water insecurity. Just because there is a lot of water physically available here in the United States — and a lot of infrastructure to deliver that water — it doesn’t mean that water security is a given. There are many — millions even— of marginalized Americans who experience daily problems with sufficient quantities and quality of water. It’s during crises like this one in Texas that bring these problems into plain view.   

The Texas water crisis highlights how integrated our water, food and energy systems are. Another recent tragedy, the California wildfires, is another example of how these resource insecurities are intertwined. Towns burned and pollutants seeped into ground and water systems, making their way into food. 

Water insecurity touches every aspect of life. When we have water problems, it gets more difficult to wash our hands, which perpetuates the spread of COVID-19. We also can’t remove waste, and we can’t prepare food safely.  

The Texas crisis also reveals how difficult it is to know about the security of our water. Better, cheaper and more rapid tools to assess the prevalence of problems with water access and use are badly needed. We have start to thinking about water differently. We have to stop taking water for granted.” 

A world-renowned expert on water scarcity, Packman is a professor of civil and environmental engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and director of Northwestern’s Center for Water Research. He studies urban water management, waterborne disease and water pollution. Packman can be contacted directly at a-packman@northwestern.edu

Quote from Professor Packman: 

“Climate change drives many types of extreme weather events — not just warming. We have to be better prepared, from individual families all the way to up state and federal governments. 

Outbreaks of waterborne diseases often follow natural disasters because the water cannot be effectively treated and safely delivered to people. The ability to ensure that safe water can be safely delivered to people’s homes depends on an extensive infrastructure system. It requires functioning treatment plants, electrical power to run those plants and an intact pipeline system to keep the water clean after treatment.

We also need testing after pipe failures and leaks in order to determine when water is safe to drink. This will be important in Texas because so many pipes have burst — everywhere from individual homes out to larger water supply lines. A simple test for homeowners to test their water would be valuable to let them know when their own local water is safe. In the meantime, boil orders are a good precaution to help people from getting sick when treatment plants aren’t functioning or when contamination might be leaking into the water system.”

An expert in synthetic biology, Lucks is an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School. His research group develops low-cost diagnostics to test water quality in the field. He recently developed a handheld, one-drop test that provides an easy-to-read positive or negative result when detecting contaminants in water. Lucks can be reached directly at jblucks@northwestern.edu.

Quote from Professor Lucks:

“Rapid, easy-to-use and cost-effective water tests are vital for guaranteeing people that they can safely drink water without risk of getting sick. We need tests that can be administered on site as needed to ensure safe drinking water in emergency scenarios. These tests also can better inform mitigation/repair strategies and monitor the system when it comes back online.

Disasters can cause specific contamination issues — such as hurricanes causing industrial spills and leaks — and cause breaks in water supply that allow contaminants to leak into the system when water is stagnant. This includes things like lead in stagnant pipes or legionella in stagnant water supplies. While boiling water can kill microbes, it also can concentrate chemical contaminants. Getting water from non-municipal source also can carry unknown contaminants. We need better testing to eliminate these unknowns.”

Interview the Experts

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Julius B. Lucks

Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Associate Chair of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Member, Center for Synthetic Biology
Member, Center for Water Research
Member, Chemistry of Life Processes Institute