2023 SLU Summit For Water Focuses On Translating Research Into Real-World Community Impact
Experts, community leaders and changemakers gathered at Saint Louis University last week for the 2023 SLU Summit for Water. Organized by SLU’s WATER Institute, the two-day summit featured the pediatrician whose research exposed the Flint water crisis. This marked the first time in four years that a portion of the summit was held in person.
“The goal for the SLU Summit for Water is to bring together people from different sectors — whether that's academia or industry or government agencies, nonprofit environmental agencies, communities, community leaders or activists — to talk about water-related issues,” said Rachel Rimerman, director of business and outreach for SLU WATER Institute. “A lot of times, these people don't have an opportunity to cross paths and talk about these things. But water is such a multifaceted issue that we think it's important to bring people together. This year, we really wanted to focus on translating research into real-world community impact and centering experiences in how we can work together more effectively to improve our communities.”
On the Summit’s first day, attendees participated in sessions covering a range of topics, from the impact of industrial livestock farming on groundwater quality in rural Missouri to the importance of addressing environmental injustices.
The highlight of the summit was a conversation between Susan Armstrong, who serves on Missouri's Safe Drinking Water Commission, and Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., associate dean for public health and the C. S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Hanna-Attisha was at the forefront of diagnosing the water crisis in Flint Michigan, and leading cleanup efforts there.
“Right from the beginning, when we decided this was going to be the theme for this year’s Summit, we wanted to get Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha for our keynote speaker,” Rimmerman said. “The work she has done with the Flint water crisis and how she continues to lead for community resilience continues to be extraordinary. She was so pivotal in Flint and really encompasses everything we wanted to talk about at the Summit and what we wanted the attendees to take away from the event. Her talk was everything I could have hoped for and more.”
Throughout the discussion, Hanna-Attisha and Armstrong examined the impact of the Flint water crisis, not just on the immediate Michigan community but also on how it affects the entire country. Armstrong noted that Missouri is one of the largest producers of lead in the United States, which naturally leads to the highest concentrations of lead exposure and lead poisoning. And with the state government remediating lead pipes throughout Missouri, lessons learned from the Flint water crisis can be applicable here in St. Louis.
“Lead can alter the life course of not just one kid but a population of kids,” Hanna-Attisha said. “That’s why we’re finding the lead pipes, and we're replacing them before kids are exposed. Before Flint, no one talked about lead pipes, and now, Vice President Kamala Harris just announced we’re going to get rid of all the lead pipes in this country. That's amazing. That's what we should be doing. That's primary prevention.”
Hanna-Attisha consistently reminded those in attendance water is a basic, human right throughout her keynote and pinpointed how many of the issues with drinking water tend to affect poorer communities with a high population of people of color. Social justice means not just equality but equity, and the same applies to access to water.
“Water is a right,” Hanna-Attisha said. “To make a change in your community to make sure it’s a right, you need to build a broad team. It's about working with all kinds of different folks, and especially with folks in the community. A central tenet of environmental justice is having a seat at the table. It is participatory democracy. It is self-determination. So in all of our recovery work to this day, it is done in humble, shoulder-to-shoulder partnership with our community. And that’s the way it should be.”
In the years since the Flint water crisis, for as disastrous the crisis is and was, Hanna-Attisha has seen hope radiate. There have been plenty of other water crises, some worse than Flint, but those have been fixed quicker and better than Flint. Lead pipes are being removed from Flint and work has begun on doing the same for other communities as well. Communities are becoming whole again.
“Unfortunately, we continue to kind of have these deja vu moments with lead in water,” Hanna-Attisha said. “These stories continue and there are common threads. They continue to be in communities of color. They continue to be communities that have been disinvested in and neglected for a long time. But taking proactive steps like replacing lead pipes all over the country and investing in infrastructure will hopefully decrease how often these crises continue to happen. But many other cities have had problems after Flint, and they've done better, which is great. They've learned. There still needs to be more investments to make sure that this happens everywhere and equitably, but we’re getting there, and that’s encouraging.”
SLU’s theme for the 2023 Summit for Water was community resilience, and leaving the event, those in attendance were ready to continue to make a difference in their areas and to leave their mark on the planet, to leave it better than it is now.
About The Saint Louis University WATER Institute
The Water Access, Technology, Environment and Resources (WATER) Institute at Saint Louis University is an interdisciplinary research institute with the mission of advancing water innovation to serve humanity. For more information, visit www.slu.edu/water.
Source: The Saint Louis University Water Institute