Fairmount: Joining the Global Conversation on Water Sustainability

Text and images by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.

For Carola Hein, traveling from the Netherlands to Philadelphia for World Water Day 2023 meant returning to the city where she raised four children who attended camp on the Schuylkill River.

Now Hein is a professor at TU Delft and the UNESCO Chair of Water, Ports and Historic Cities. She said she hoped the event held at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works would allow attendees to move toward more focused networking and collaboration. 

“I think the goodwill is here,” Hein said. “So, if this can serve as a kickoff, that would be my dream.”

The March 17 & 18 event brought together academics, city officials, historians and nonprofit workers who believe Philadelphia’s cultural heritage as a port city makes it an important place to talk about the future of water infrastructure. 

“I loved that people are coming together today to have conversation around water, which is so vital,” said Ellen Schultz, the director of strategic partnerships for the Fairmount Water Works and one of the Philadelphia Water Department officials who will join Hein and other TU Delft professors at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York next week. “I think water’s such a connector.”

At the World Water Forum in Senegal last year, Schultz met the group from TU Delft and decided to join their collaborative research efforts. The resulting work, entitled “Blue Paper,” aims to connect academics with other professionals to produce an accessible bank of resources. 

The group is also working on open online courses and promoting a board game called Water Values. The game prompts players to think long-term as they develop a landscape over a 100-year period. 

Next week’s UN conference will primarily focus on sustainable development goals the organization aspires to achieve by 2030.  

Schultz said attending the UN conference will allow her to “be at the table” and learn more about how utilities and institutions can work toward water sustainability. 

Karl Matthias Wantzen, the UNESCO Chair of River Culture, pointed out that Americans have a lot to learn from their global neighbors about responsible water usage. His statistics align with the findings of the Centers for Disease Control, which found the average person in the United States uses 156 gallons of water per day, versus 77 gallons in France and 3 gallons in Mali. 

Wantzen said more compassion is needed to get people to care about complex problems.

“We have to develop a heart for the nature,” he said. 

World Water Day 2023 attendee Maureen McGuigan said the event allowed her children, who are 4 and 6 years old, to see that compassionate mindset in action. 

“It’s nice for them to see that adults do care,” McGuigan said. 

McGuigan, who is living in the Kyrgyz Republic in central Asia, works in sustainable tourism. She was in town to visit family, and she decided activities like Friday’s river walk and Saturday’s board game session would be a good way to feed her children’s love of “learning more about how things work.” 

Wantzen said the ultimate goal should be to distribute research and best practices with the speed and reach of a “swarm intelligence” — a phenomenon he likened to Star Trek’s Borg hive mind. 

“I’m tired of seeing how research projects are dealing with the same issues time and again,” Wantzen said. “We must be faster.” 

Philadelphia Water Department spokesperson Brian Rademaekers said the international focus on water heritage sites really brought home for him the importance of taking care of places like Fairmount Water Works. 

“We get so focused locally on protecting our waterways and taking care of the people of Philadelphia and delivering water to other people,” Rademaekers said. “So, to bring in other people from around the world, to kind of show them what we’re doing but also to learn from them, I think, is a really powerful experience.”

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