Ending Water Shortages

A professor, new to Purdue, takes on the challenge.

Venkatesh Merwade has seen pervasive poverty, hunger, and thirst in his Indian homeland. In the United States, he's witnessed a much greater abundance. While the two countries may seem poles apart economically, he's found they do share a common, basic struggle: a shortage of adequate water supplies.

Rich or poor, it's a problem for all countries, even though about three–fourths of the earth's surface is covered in water. And worldwide, Merwade knows, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Those startling truths spawned Merwade's thirst for answers and his career.

"There are issues related to water wherever you go. I want to do something towards solving that problem," the May 1997 graduate of Shivaji University in India says. "I want to help make sure there's enough water for everyone in this world."

After earning his undergraduate degree, Merwade worked two years at Montgomery Watson Harza in India, where he designed water distribution systems.

He next earned a master's in engineering hydrology from the National University of Ireland in 2000, then a doctorate in civil engineering at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin in 2004. He stayed on two years, in post–doctoral work at UT's Center for Research in Water Resources, where his research included hydrologic information systems, flow and stage network optimization, assessment of groundwater and surface water interactions on the quantity and quality of water in Texas, and in–stream flow studies.

Now, at 30, he's joined the civil engineering faculty at Purdue, where he's applying Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to water resource problems and building a research team. In spring 2008, he'll begin teaching courses in hydrology, hydraulics, and GIS applications in water resources.

"The main focus of my research until now has been on river channels, describing their three–dimensional structure and coming up with techniques to model the channel bathymetry," he says. "Such information can be used for hydrodynamic modeling, to better understand how the water flows in rivers, and to learn more about in–stream flows." He's also expanding his work to include remote sensing techniques in hydrology.

Interdisciplinary opportunities attracted him to the post at Purdue, a place he considered for his doctoral studies. "I will get to work with more people, and I can expand my boundaries by working with them," he says. "I see a lot of good opportunities."

Solving the global challenge water supply problem wasn't Merwade's first interest. As a child in Kolhapur living with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins in "one big house with about 20 family members," he enjoyed building houses out of paper and boxes.

"That's how I became interested in engineering and inclined to civil engineering," he says. "But as I grew up, I chose environmental engineering because water is a main problem back home. We don't get tap water 24 hours a day, and a lot of Indian rivers are polluted."

He's the only member of his family who left India, where he says, "I always felt secure, had a lot of support, and education was a big part of my growing up."

He maintains close ties to his country and family, and he volunteers for the Association for India's Development. The nonprofit raises funds and sponsors projects in India on education, women's empowerment, social development, and other issues related to rural India.

He also maintains a connection through a favorite pastime, cooking with his wife, Shilpa. North Indian vegetable curries and south Indian snack items are among their favorites.

"We start from scratch," he says. "It's not quick and easy." Much like his career challenge in water resources.

—Kathy Mayer