Founding Member, Global Water Alliance

Those of us privileged to work with Dr. Arun Deb know he does his job with a quiet grace and determination and now the world, at least our Philadelphia portion of it, is finding out, too. Congratulations to Dr. Deb on the Philadelphia Inquirer feature found here online and scheduled to be in the Sunday edition of the Inky on January 31, 2021.

Dr. Deb has over 60 years experience in teaching, research in water and wastewater consultancy and in the early 1990’s began working with Water for People to bring safe drinking water to students in India.  Since that initial foray, Dr. Deb has helped thousands of students and raised thousands of dollars for the cause, often contributing generously from his own pocket.

To note his accomplishments, in 2018, the Global Water Alliance established the annual Arun Deb Promise of Excellence in WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) Award in honor of our founding board member, Dr. Arun Deb.

To celebrate the Inquirer article and put a spotlight on all his good work, we wanted to pose a few more questions to Dr. Deb to round out the co-mingling of his very rich and vibrant water and volunteer lives. Dr. Deb was happy to oblige:

When did you being the practice of engineering and was that always your first love?

In 1960 I came to the University of Wisconsin, Madison to study for a Masters in Sanitary (Environmental) Engineering with a specialization in Water and Wastewater. In 1961, I went back to India and started teaching Environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology. That is the beginning of my developing interest in water and wastewater engineering. Since then, I’ve been involved in water and wastewater engineering. I completed my Ph.D. in 1968 and left India in 1971 to join the faculty at the University College London, U.K.  I returned to the U.S. in early 1974 and worked at The University of Notre Dame as a Visiting Professor. Then I left teaching and joined Weston Solutions and after 29 years of service, I retired as Vice President from Weston in 2003. 

What drew you to water protection and was that part of your work before you retired from Weston? 

During my time at Weston, I was involved in water and wastewater management, water and water quality modeling, waste load allocation, NPDES Permitting, and the development of water supply master plans and distribution system modeling. I was peripherally involved in hazardous waste management and wetland management.  While working for Weston, in 1995 I came in contact with Water For People and became very much involved in the water and sanitation issues of developing countries, particularly in India. I was on the Board of Water For People from 1997-2003. 

Describe the beginning days of the Global Water Alliance and how you became involved in its founding.

At the request of Dick Riegler, I joined the Board of PGWI [Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, now GWA] at the beginning. I thought my experience working with Water For People would help in developing PGWI. I was involved in project development, project sustainability, strategic plan development, and education. During the last about 15 years, I developed many school WASH projects in West Bengal, India. With the initiative of Stan [Laskowski, PGWI founding member], I became involved in teaching water-related courses at Penn. Further, GWA organized its two annual conferences in 2017 and 2020 in Kolkata, India. Students from Penn and other universities joined the conferences, visited school WASH projects and Arsenic projects in the field, collected and analyzed data, and presented papers at the conferences. The students’ reports and recommendations helped in improving the sustainability of the projects. 

GWA just had its latest yearly conference in September of 2020 so I’d say the educational impact has been long-lasting!  You maintain residences in both the U.S. and India.  What are some of the differences in how each of those governments handle water issues?  What are some of the similarities? And what can be borrowed from each culture?

After my retirement from Weston in 2003, my wife and I started spending the winter months in India. During 2000-2002, while I was working with Weston, I was leading a World Bank Project, developing a master plan of water and wastewater for the City of Kolkata, India. The problems in India are political interferences, lack of institutional capacity, metering, and wastage of water due to leaks in the pipes. In the U.S., people can drink water from the faucet with confidence. In India, water quality is not good enough for drinking from the tap. Due to leaky water pipes, water supply in India is not 24 hours per day, and as a result, water flowing through the pipes may get contaminated. Therefore, people who can afford to drink bottled water or install an RO [reverse osmosis] system in the house. In rural areas, very rarely, they have a piped water supply system. Water for drinking and cooking is primarily collected by women from some centralized sources. Now the Government of India is planning to have a piped water supply system for all rural villages, but without any plans, these systems will not be sustainable. 

I’ve often thought that education was paramount in any effort to improve society, water especially.  Assuming unlimited resources, what changes would you make and what educational tools would you employ in improving worldwide water literacy?

My philosophy is that the prime criteria for improving society are health and education. Governments of developing nations should give priority to budgeting for health and education. Water education should be included in the elementary school curriculum. Students graduating from high schools should have good knowledge of water and its importance to human life. Now teachers and students can get easy access to the internet to many water education tools. Most important is to learn the value and importance of water.

What are your water goals for the next decade, Dr. Deb?

I do not have any personal goals for the next decade. I would like to dedicate myself to water and sanitation projects and women’s empowerment in poor rural areas of India.  Women’s education is especially important to me. An educated mother automatically will have her children educated. This is the cheapest way to educate a country. 

Thanks, Dr. Deb, for sharing your thoughts with us today and for all you do for water education and health!  Your contribution has been invaluable and we at GWA hope it continues for a very long time.