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Reaching Out to Water-Stressed Countries

Water in many parts of the world has become a fragile commodity. The work of Philip Giantris ’65 addresses the global need for good, clean, accessible water for all.

Philip Giantris, at Albania’s first wastewater treatment plant with the facility’s director, Hysni Shamata, tackles the social and political aspects of water management.

By Joanne Silver
Photography by Albes Fusha

No wastewater is too murky, no infrastructure too fragile, and no bureaucracy too clogged for Philip Giantris to seek a solution. He has led training programs in Indonesia on water, wastewater, and solid waste management. In Egypt, he conducted an assessment of the Cairo General Organization for Sanitary Drainage. From Kosovo and Montenegro to Jordan and South Africa, he has aided governments and utilities in improving water systems. At the Water Africa ’99 conference, held in Cairo, Giantris spoke about Water for All, South Africa’s program to increase private sector participation in the delivery of water supply and sanitation services. Despite the decidedly unglamorous title, the subject gets to the heart of a situation that is approaching crisis proportions throughout the globe. It has been estimated that, for a billion people, this essential resource is compromised—either unavailable or filthy enough to cause serious illness.

“On today’s course,” Giantris explains, “we are headed for some major water-based catastrophes in the underdeveloped and developing world. We may see incidents of water system failures that will cause deaths in the tens of thousands. The movement of populations from rural to urban or peri-urban areas in the developing world continues at a rate that is not understood in the Western or developed world. The estimates are one million people per week. It is straining water supply systems around the world, and at the current rate of capital investment is a recipe for disaster.”

Belief in the global necessity for good, clean, accessible water motivates Giantris in the work he does. During the past four decades, he has combined his passion for water with what he learned at WPI and Boston University, where he earned his M.B.A., to tackle a wide range of projects. Numerous American municipalities, as well as a dozen countries scattered over four continents, have benefited from his expertise. Through his company—Valu Add, a small consulting practice based in Tirana, Albania, concentrated on the water supply and wastewater sector in developing countries—Giantris is keeping his promise to his mother to give back to his family’s native land. And he loves what he does. “It is not easy, but it is a dream job,” the first-generation Albanian American says.

Through his consulting firm, Giantris, seen here in Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square, gives back to his family’s native country of Albania.

Giantris has always felt a connection to water. Growing up around the corner from the Worcester YMCA, he learned to swim at the age of 8, and competed in swimming through his college years. At WPI, he worked at the Alden Research Laboratory in Holden (see story); although the majority of projects there involved water, Giantris recalls one particular experiment in which he tested two rectangular blocks of wood in a wind tunnel to simulate the effect of wind on the planned Twin Towers in Manhattan. Even during his two-year stint in the Army, he was never far from water. In Vietnam, he served as a Port Construction officer, using some of the skills he had gained at WPI as a civil/sanitary engineering major. Twenty years at the Wakefield, Mass.–based water and wastewater firm of Metcalf & Eddy provided him with ample opportunities to explore a field as it was being transformed by new federal regulations. Now, as a resident of an oceanfront home on Southport Island, Maine, Giantris and his wife often find themselves mesmerized by the view. “As crazy as it sounds, my wife and I are like children, who, every day, see the ocean as if for the first time,” he says.

Water never represented a mere technical challenge for Giantris. He has always focused on the people who are affected by the issues he addresses. “Overall,” he says, “we need to better protect our resources and manage the demand for water in a more enlightened and informed way. Through our continuing disregard for the environment, we constantly strain and pollute our water resources and waste water, causing supplies to appear to be inadequate. It is a gift from God, but it is not free.”

When Giantris steps in to assist with water issues, he must be fluid in his approach. The awe that he feels in the face of the ocean becomes tempered by pragmatic strategies, as he draws upon both his engineering experience and his business acumen. He says, “It is not enough today, in managing public water supply and wastewater infrastructure, to be technically accurate and operationally reliable. Water supply and wastewater utilities must also be commercially competitive and financially self-sustaining.”

How does Giantris decide what approach to take? “At the simple level, it is training,” he responds. “But water is much more complex than that, and therefore it requires a philosophical change in the way governments address this essential public service. It is important, when you take on an assignment, to quickly try to figure out who or what is really driving this interest. Who are the stakeholders, and what do they want out of it?”

Then the hard work can begin. Business plans can be developed, manuals written, water analyzed and accounted for, regulations reviewed, contracts prepared. The possibilities are extensive, the obstacles even more so. Philip Giantris remains upbeat. In the midst of his work in the Balkans, he thinks back 40 years and says, “I survived WPI academically through persistence—not necessarily brains—and it continues to serve me well here in Albania.”

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Last modified: Apr 19, 2006, 22:44 EDT
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