Since enrolling in his first Environmental Science class as a senior in college, Marty Kress has dedicated his life to working for the environment. But when his phone rang in early 2013, years after that collegiate experience, Kress couldn’t have anticipated what the call would lead to.
“At the back-end of my career, I got to go back to where I started, which is a luxury for anyone, because we all have these dreams and aspirations we don’t quite get to,” he explains.”So, I’m thrilled to be a part of the OSU team.”
Yes, that phone call led to Kress’ appointment in May of 2013 as Assistant Vice President, Research Business Developer, of The Ohio State University. They wanted him to address three key points that they called “discovery themes” – energy and environment, health and wellness, and food safety and security.
But Kress, who is by nature an unconventional thinker, approached the project in a very unconventional way.
“If you can visualize a triangle that say health, energy and environment as the three points, what do you immediately migrate to in your heads?” Kress asked an audience at December’s Akron Roundtable speaker series session.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s really innovative,'” Kress went onto explain. “‘I’ve always wanted to work on a big global water project.’ And there was this pause.”
The executives Kress reports to were confused by his response. But Kress was insistent.
“That’s the logical question,” he explains. “If you have food, if you have health, if you have wellness, you’ve got water.”
Three themes to the water crisis
Kress breaks water into three main themes: availability, quality and access.
He shares how over 750 localities across the global have problems with their water, either through algae or other types of harmful growths.
“It’s not the drought you can see,” Kress says, referencing a September report by Science Magazine. “It’s the drought you can’t see.”
To stress this point, Kress shared the following facts with Roundtable attendees:
- One billion people around the world lack clean drinking water
- There are 2.6 billion that lack proper sanitation
- Five million people die each year from lack of proper hygiene (89 percent live in rural areas)
Kress goes on to describe how countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and other regions around the world lack proper education to understand what clean water is.
“They say, ‘But we have water,'” he explains. “And we worry about disease, and they’ve learned to live with it, even though they have a high infant mortality rate. But at the same time, this is an issue that touches your heart.”
Finally, to address the issue of access, Kress discusses how data can inform decisions on how to address the larger problem.
“In these regions of the world [Ethiopia, Tanzania], the price point for water is 3 percent of disposable income,” he shares. In contrast, “55 to 60 percent of disposable income goes for a cell phone.”
Kress believes there are innovative solutions to the water crisis that can be gleaned from such data – for example, leveraging cell phones as an integral component to helping increase access to water for people across the world.
Systematic solutions to systemic problems
In order to address these issues, Kress takes a deeper dive into Tanzania, which today hosts 5,000 inoperable wells. This is important information to know, he explains, but not as important as understanding what makes them inoperable.
On average in Africa, it takes three to four hours to walk to one of these wells and fill two jugs (one for each hand). It then takes another three to four hours to make it back to the family hut while carrying those jugs. And the overarching goal of this day-long journey is to provide five gallons of water — for this is what is required to sustain a family of four.
On top of this picture, Kress urges listeners to take into account the lack of sustainability of the wells themselves. Because there is no supply chain model, there are no support systems in place to provide parts and services if something breaks down with the wells.
Simply put, Kress says, it’s not a sustainable model.
The key to the solution, he goes on to explain, is to fix the whole system, rather than the symptom or even the key part. By putting in place full-system solutions, it provides a multifaceted impact.
As an example, implementing an aquaponics industry in one of these areas has multiple effects — stimulating the local economy, providing for manufacturing of parts and equipment, offering a larger market for fishermen (who are used to selling their fish only in their local village), providing solutions for growing food and establishing a system for providing clean water.
These are types of initiatives Kress is interested in, and this is what he’s working toward in his role with OSU.
Global Water Initiative
This past year, Kress led OSU in launching its Global Water Initiative, hosting a series of forums and events to connect faculty and researchers at different colleges and universities, as well as big businesses, start-up innovation companies and more, all dedicated to developing creative solutions to these global problems and bringing them to market.
“The real theme of this is the concept of collaboration,” Kress says. “How do we share our strengths and solve problems that not only face us locally, but in the region, around the world?
“How do you really get people to collaborate – I don’t mean just say it. I mean really get people to collaborate, put the higher-level, world objective at the top of the list and put all your energy behind that.”
While OSU serves the initiative as a “neutral technology integrator,” various other organizations are invested in the project as well, including MIT, Cornell University, Purdue University, University of Nebraska, Penn State University, and Michigan State University.
The group also has done regional work, especially with their Field to Faucet program and other initiatives currently in development for the Chancellor of Ohio. These projects and more launched from initial work the group did in response to the algae blooms that plagued the city of Toledo during last summer.
“This is a major initiative,” Kress says, “And I’m willing to say 90 percent of the American public has no idea, which is something we need to improve.”
To read Marty Kress’ biography, or to download his slide presentation, visit the Akron Roundtable’s web site.
Mark Cohen, publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, will discuss “Media Disruption and What It Means for the Beacon,” Jan. 15 at Quaker Station downtown Akron.