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Edema Ojomo earned a Master of Science degree in environmental sciences and engineering from UNC–Chapel Hill in 2011, and is pursuing a doctoral degree in the same field at Carolina. She leads a project on the vulnerability of drinking water systems to simultaneously occurring climate hazards in coastal areas.

At the 2014 Water and Health Conference, organized by The Water Institute at UNC, she will be giving two presentations: one on effective ways to promote household water treatment and safe storage practices and the other on diagnosing the vulnerability of drinking water systems to climate hazards.

“The conference is a great opportunity to meet professionals from dozens of countries that work in the water and sanitation field, from the private sector to NGOs to government agencies,’’ she said. “It’s a great environment for learning and networking.”

She recently answered more questions about herself and her work:

How did you become interested in a career in water research?

I grew up in Nigeria, where millions of people lack access to improved water sources; however, this was never an issue for me and my family. We had access to an improved water source and also boiled and filtered our water before drinking it or cooking with it. We never had to think twice about the safety or availability of water. But just a few minutes away from our home, there were people without access to safe water or sanitation.

I believe water is one of the most basic human rights. You should be able to wake up in the morning and drink a glass of water and not worry about where it came from, whether or not it is safe, or whether you’ll be able to get another glass that evening. This fact that people deal with this problem every day is what drew me to do this work.

You just returned from Vietnam. What were you doing there?

I was working on a project to look at how vulnerable water drinking systems are to storm surges and heavy rainfall. We want to understand how these weather events impact drinking-water systems so that we can figure out ways to minimize the likelihood of failure during disasters, thereby ensuring continuous access to water. We’re also looking at infrastructure changes that can minimize negative impacts as well as the community’s capacity to cope after a disaster.

So increased rainfall isn’t a good thing when it comes to access to clean water?

It depends. Increased rainfall can mean more water, which is great. But when the intensity of rainfall is high, there is a greater chance of flooding, which causes erosion, which in turn deteriorates water quality. That’s a big problem for the water utilities—they have to monitor the water quality constantly to know what amount of chemicals to use for effective treatment.

What do you enjoy most about this work?

I’m an engineer, but I get excited about more than the technical solutions to problems. I particularly enjoy learning about different people and their cultures and trying to understand how to carry out our interventions in different environments. For example, a system might work well in the U.S., but it won’t necessarily work well in Vietnam, or vice versa. The people in these countries have grown up in different cultures, and with different experiences that shape the way they view problems and, as a result, the way they view solutions.

How has the Water Institute helped support your work?

One of my favorite things about the Water Institute is our biweekly lunch seminars. Students in the Water Institute, and any other students interested in water sanitation and development work, present their research to the group, so we get to learn what everyone else is doing and get feedback on our own work. It’s an interdisciplinary group, which I think is a really good thing. If you come across a subject matter that you’re not familiar with in the course or your research, you can almost always find someone who can assist you. It’s a very supportive network.

By Mary Lide Parker, Office of Research Communications

Published: October 9, 2014