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Keeping afloat on the world's water problems

Janet Hering, the new head of the Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, talks to swissinfo about the centre's global role in safe water provision.

swissinfo met with the American professor of environmental biogeochemistry at the institute near Zurich to talk about the challenges facing water specialists.

Hering, who previously spent time as a postdoctoral student at the institute, said she was very excited about the "huge opportunity" of leading the research and consulting body.

She says the institute, which she took over on January 1, not only has a very good international reputation but is the only one of its kind specifically focused on water-related issues. It also benefits from generous government funding, allowing it to carry out cutting-edge research.

swissinfo: What do you see as the main challenges for water supply and distribution at the moment?

Janet Hering: It's very different in different parts of the world. The provision of safe water supply and sanitation in developing and underdeveloped countries is a very significant issue. It has been identified as such by the United Nations in its Millennium Development Goals [for reducing world poverty]. I think that the institute could make some very important contributions in that area.

For developed nations there are also quite a few issues. Many of the classic problems in water quality have been solved but we definitely have an issue in Switzerland and other countries with the loss of native [fish] species.

There is also a great deal of interest in restoring streams and rivers to a more natural state, especially rivers that have been canalised for flood control. But you have competing issues on maintaining flood protection and restoring something approaching a natural state as well as creating habitat for native species.

swissinfo: The institute has had some notable successes in sanitation projects in developing counties.

J.H.: There's been a very successful and long running project called Sodis for solar water disinfection. The problem is that when sanitation is insufficient drinking water gets contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

The leading cause of death of children under age five in developing counties is diarrhoeal disease and much of this is water borne. So this project is something that meets an immediate need of the population and is relatively easy to implement as it essentially uses thermal and UV [ultraviolet] disinfection to treat water in plastic bottles.

swissinfo: There has been talk of a world water crisis. Is this really the case?

J.H.: I think in some parts of the world there already is a water crisis. In some cases, there are some very complicated transboundary issues, such as between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and in the Middle East one of the many complicating factors there has to do with the water use in Israel and surrounding countries. Even in the US there are some issues between states.

Many of these problems concern the amount and quality of water and it's very likely the situation could become more severe in the future, partly because of population pressure. There's also the large uncertainty surrounding climate change.

We have some reasonably good ideas on a global scale about climate change, but on the regional scale it's very difficult to pin down what they are going to be – will it rain more or less? There has already been substantial retreat in Swiss glaciers and you might expect that this will have some implications in terms of water supply.

swissinfo: So even Switzerland is having or will have problems?

J.H.: There are now some issues concerning groundwater quality, particularly with nitrate levels, and occurrences of pesticides and herbicides, which come not only from agriculture but also from urban areas. But compared with many other places Switzerland really doesn't have anything to worry about. There are certainly plenty of water resources here.

swissinfo: How do you see the future of water resources?

J.H.: I would hope that in the future we will recognise more and more the value of these resources and the importance of protecting them. This is especially important in the context of the very rapid development taking place now in China, India and other parts of the world. [Fortunately] there is growing recognition that while perhaps not a lot of attention was paid to environmental issues during some of their initial development, this situation is simply not sustainable.

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Dübendorf

In brief

Eawag is based in two locations - at Dübendorf (near Zurich) and Kastanienbaum (near Lucerne).

It was founded in 1936 as an information centre for wastewater treatment for the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Today it forms part of the research network around the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. It collaborates with research bodies, the public and private sector, and NGOs in Switzerland and internationally.

The institute, which employs 400 people, provides scientific cooperation, consulting services and a broad education extension programme.

Its main focuses are aquatic ecosystems, urban water management, and chemicals and their impacts.

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Janet Hering

Janet Hering was born in 1958 and is a US citizen.

She studied at Cornell and Harvard Universities and gained her PhD from MIT. Hering carried out postdoctoral research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology from 1988-1991.

More recently she has been working at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where she was named professor in 2002.

Janet Hering also sits on the editorial advisory board of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

She took up her post as director of Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology on January 1, 2007.

Her research focuses on techniques for making contaminated water drinkable and on the biogeochemical behaviour of trace metals. She is also professor of environmental biogeochemistry at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

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