David Sabatini is David Ross Boyd Professor and Sun Oil Company Endowed Chair of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science at the University of Oklahoma. He joined OU in 1989 and is currently Director of the Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Center and Associate Director of The Institute for Applied Surfactant Research. His research focuses on sustainable drinking water systems for developing countries, surfactant-based environmental and biofuel technologies, and understanding/characterizing contaminant transport and remediation in the subsurface.
As the first director of the WaTER Center, can you tell us about its origins?
About 12 years ago, I was working on cleaning up superfund toxic waste sites, and I visited developing countries to talk about our work. I saw drastic mortality rates, 10-15% of the local children dying before the age of five, because of unclean water. It caught my attention; I realized that we needed university programs to prepare students and conduct research to assess these challenges. I met with some of my colleagues with similar viewpoints and we founded the WaTER Center. The WaTER Center is also a natural outgrowth of my faith. It’s an opportunity for my faith and my career to overlap, and for the chance to help those less fortunate than me.
Can you tell us about these photos you provided?
The Ethiopia picture was part of our graduate-level research. There were three OU personnel who went, including Teshome Lemma, my Ph.D. student from Ethiopia. I recruited him to come to OU for his doctorate, and his research concerned solving the water quality challenge in Ethiopia, which focuses on fluoride. Fluoride’s an interesting compound. We add it to our drinking water at low levels to prevent cavities, or to our toothpaste. At low levels, it’s good for our teeth. At high levels, it damages our teeth and later our bones. It can be incapacitating to the point where people can’t do manual labor. We’re developing technologies based on in-country materials to try and remove agents like fluoride from the water. In the other picture, I was in Cambodia with some OU students addressing levels of arsenic in groundwater.
What are the opportunities for student involvement at the WaTER Center?
We have undergraduate and graduate opportunities. We have a student organization called Sooners Without Borders. Those students will do things locally, reaching out to local needs, and taking weeklong trips once or twice a year to international locations. At the beginning of the semester, our students went to the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Sooners Without Borders is available to any major. We’ve got a water minor. Anyone from any major who wants to learn about water and sanitation can get this minor. It also promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, as you’ve got engineering and business and education majors and so on all taking this challenge on together. There’s also graduate research within the center, so there’s room for involvement at many levels.
What water issues affect Oklahomans and the OU community?
Arsenic and fluoride affect water in Oklahoma just like in Ethiopia or Cambodia. The research we do there can help us approach challenges at home and vice versa. We kind of mentioned that before, the research Teshome led in Ethiopia. Teshome has also developed materials that can help remove phosphorus from water. Phosphorus is a limiting chemical that can cause algae growth, which negatively impacts the quality of the water. Lake Thunderbird has had problems with high phosphorus levels. Lake Thunderbird was originally built as a water supply 50 years ago, as a way to build a water resource close to the metro area. They either had to move water or use groundwater. Moving water is expensive and takes time. Before that, Norman relied solely on groundwater. Without Lake Thunderbird, Norman wouldn’t have grown into the city we know it as today. In that way, Norman was kind of a pioneer. Maybe 30 or 40 years down the road, if we don’t find more water, Norman will be stuck at its current size.
Do you have any final comments about water?
We take it for granted. There are over seven billion people in the world, and one-seventh of the world’s population doesn’t have access to a safe or improved source of water. A third of the world’s population doesn’t have adequate sanitation. The impacts of those facts are that every 40 seconds a child dies because of a water- or sanitation-related challenge. And these have easy solutions. This isn’t rocket science. It’s a challenge we have to address globally. It’s not a new issue, either. In the late 1800s, the U.S. was in that situation. There was an outbreak of typhoid fever and water-borne diseases. One of my hobbies is reading Abraham Lincoln biographies, and only one of his sons survived into adulthood. One died of typhoid fever, and he contracted it while living in the White House, drinking water from the Potomac River.
In fact, it was considered safer for European envoys to visit and stay in Calcutta, India, or modern-day Kolkata, than for them to visit Washington, D.C. We were once there, we were once a developing country. We’ve faced severe challenges, but we’ve had the benefits of a good economy that helped us address some of these challenges. I think it behooves us to look at ourselves and make sure we’re addressing future challenges and our neighbors who need to come out of that place where we were not so long ago. It’s one way to make an impact in the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. It reminds us of what we take for granted.