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IIHR Students Explore Water Issues in India

Posted on February 1st, 2012
Student and faculty participants in IIHR's International Perspectives study-abroad course in Mewat, India.

Student and faculty participants in IIHR’s International Perspectives study-abroad course in Mewat, India.

Traveling to India was a revelation for the students who participated in the recent International Perspectives in Water Sciences and Management study-abroad course, organized by Marian Muste and Nandita Basu, research engineers at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering. It is for the first time when the IIHR’s decade-long course is jointly developed with the India Winterim program coordinated by Raj Rajagopal in the Geography Department.

“In the states, we have the luxury of not worrying daily about our water supply,” says Becca Sheler, a participant in the course. People in many parts of the world enjoy no such luxury. Sheler, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, adds, “Discussing water scarcity concerns with persons from a different culture and background was an experience I knew I couldn’t get in Iowa, where water is plentiful.”

The study-abroad course took 13 students from a range of University of Iowa academic departments to India in January 2012. In India, the group embarked on an ambitious project: “Salty or Sweet—Exploring the Challenges of Groundwater Salinization within a Sustainable Framework.” Most of the course activities were conducted in cooperation with the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD). IRRAD is one of India’s premier institutions, Muste says, with tremendous positive impact in its area of operation in northern India. “Water, or more specifically the lack of, is the main driver of the socio-economic landscape in the villages where IRRAD chooses to work,” he says.

“India faces a turbulent water future,” Basu says. “Increasing population pressures, dwindling groundwater resources, and a highly seasonal rainfall pattern create a pressing need for increasing efficiency in water management. The course exposed the students to some of these issues, and provided them with opportunities to help in the design of sustainable water-focused solutions.”

Student participants in IIHR's International Perspectives course conduct a water quality survey in India.

Student participants in IIHR’s International Perspectives course conduct a water quality survey in India.

Working with IRRAD, students conducted projects related to water use in Mewat District villages. Project activities included field trips, surveys, data mining and synthesis, and preliminary modeling to understand water flow. For engineering graduate student Nick Thomas, some of the most meaningful experiences came with the opportunity to use his own engineering judgment to investigate and understand real-world problems. “It was an eye-opening endeavor,” Thomas says. He relished the opportunity to better understand Indian culture and to interact with the Indian people.

Sheler agrees. “I will never forget the day I spent tromping about in the mustard [fields],” she says. “We asked farmers questions about their agricultural practices and about water usage. Learning firsthand about the problems associated with saline groundwater and water shortage is a memory that will remain with me forever.”

IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste relaxes in front of the Taj Mahal with a little help from his friends: (l to r) Logan Hildebrant, David Koser, Nathan Chase, Nick Thomas, Ben Reith, and Sean Plenner.

IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste relaxes in front of the Taj Mahal with a little help from his friends: (l to r) Logan Hildebrant, David Koser, Nathan Chase, Nick Thomas, Ben Reith, and Sean Plenner.

In contrast to previous courses, students spent about two-thirds of their time working in and around one area, rather than traveling throughout the stay. The work with IRRAD was complemented by short field trips, which included visits to academic institutions and historical/cultural attractions. The group visited Haridwar, an important holy site that hosts daily ceremonies along the River Ganga at sunset. They also traveled to forts and temples in the desert city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, as well as to one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal.

Authentic Indian food was a new experience for many of the Iowa students. “Indian food is the ‘spice of life’!” says Sheler. “I loved trying all the different sauces, spices, meats, and breads.” Engineering graduate student Sean Plenner adds, “The best food I had was from small roadside stands we were told to stay away from.”

It’s no exaggeration to call this a life-changing event. “I experienced many things I will never forget,” Plenner says. Sheler adds, “Though the course was challenging and the environment was uncomfortable at times, I am 100 percent sure I would do it all over again. Study abroad is priceless in so many aspects. I will never forget my trip to India.”

Joanna Krajewski, a graduate student in public health, concurs. “It was such an incredible experience, and it absolutely changed my life.”

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