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“When drinking water, think of its source. ”
— Chinese proverb

Growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut, I never worried about water. Not only was it clean, it was fluorinated. There was always enough to drink—unfiltered, from the kitchen faucet—and fill our bathtub, run our dishwasher, and water our lawn. And when summer came, my sister and I could run through the sprinkler.

During a childhood visit with my aunt in New York City, I filled a glass with tap water and noticed it looked discolored. “It’s fine,” my aunt said. “Sometimes you just have to let the water settle.”

Settle? To a girl from the suburbs, dirty-looking water was anything but settling. (Of course, the water was perfectly fine; some even believe that New York City water is what makes the bagels so good.)

For most Americans, water has always been available in ample amounts. Perhaps we’ve never stopped to think about the 74 gallons of water each of us uses, on average, every day, or how lucky we are to have good, clean, cheap access to it. It is, after all, one of our most basic needs.

Yet populations around the globe aren’t as fortunate. One billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. Another 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Every year, 7 million people die from water-borne diseases (including diarrhea) that are entirely preventable. And even though it’s earth’s most abundant resource, only about 1 percent of water is fresh and drinkable (2 percent is frozen, the remaining 97 percent is salt water). As the global population continues to rise, the demand for water is projected to double over the next 20 years. Meanwhile, population shifts are straining the current infrastructure. In the developing world, the number of people moving from rural to urban areas is so high that we in the western world can’t even comprehend it, says Philip Giantris ’65 (see story).

These numbers and statistics, though startling, aren’t meant to be depressing. But they do give context to the important work of the alumni, faculty, and students highlighted in this issue of Transformations.

George Oliver ’82 and Dean Kamen ’73, for example, are separately addressing the global water issue head on, in an effort to provide clean water to those who don’t have it. Locally, at the Worcester DPW, Dino Eliadi ’72 and Phil Guerin ’82 watch over our water supply—an increasingly important task in our post-September 11 world. Steve Rubin ’74 and Paul Vanslette ’84 have developed technology to stand guard at municipal water facilities. Jo Anne Shatkin ’85, meanwhile, identifies the microorganisms in water that we should (or shouldn’t) worry about.

There’s more in this issue, including a column by President Berkey on the core of science and engineering. We detail the future of research at the university (the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park is scheduled to open next year). Indeed, WPI is investing simultaneously in the future of research and in the economic vitality of Worcester. And as we go to press, the Bartlett Center—future home to admissions and financial aid—is about to open. It’s certainly an exciting time to be at WPI and in this city. Whether it’s the article on Gateway Park or our package on the future of water, I hope we’ve given you something to think about and enjoy.

Thanks for reading.

Charna Westervelt, Editor

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Last modified: Apr 19, 2006, 22:27 EDT
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