By Sarah Martinez, Student Sustainability Ambassador
Here in the United States, our sewage water and our garbage are generally well managed. They run beneath our feet or in trucks on our streets, either ignored or invisible to our eyes. As students, we aren’t walking through mounds of garbage to get to class or past piles of trash aflame while walking through the streets of Salt Lake City.
However, just as with natural resources, the infrastructure we have created to handle the byproducts of urban life is fleeting. We often keep things hyper local when discussing sustainability, but I want to remind you why we advocate for sustainability in the first place—the global implications.
I was lucky enough to be accepted to a learning abroad winter break program with two very prestigious and influential faculty members here at the University of Utah, Benjamin Cohen and Stephen Goldsmith. Cohen, an associated professor in History, successfully landed a grant that allowed for six University of Utah students to join him and Goldsmith, associate professor in City & Metropolitan Planning, on a trip to Hyderabad, India to research sustainable urbanization with a major focus on water.
Hyderabad used to be known as the “City of Lakes.” In the early 1900s when the Musi River flooded, the Nizam, or monarch, at the time carried out a massive engineering endeavor that created 534 artificial lakes, thus giving it its name. Today, largely due to conversion of land for development to fulfill the needs of a rapidly urbanizing city, this number has dwindled down to just over a hundred remaining water bodies. Additionally, the city has diverted almost all sewage to lakes in and outside of Hyderabad, decimating not only the character of the lakes but also the quality of the water. When speaking to local farmers in the countryside, we discovered that the water table has dropped significantly, mostly due to poor water regulations allowing for unsustainable use. Some said that as children they only had to drill 12 feet to access clean water, but now that number has skyrocketed to upwards of a few hundred feet.
Being wasteful is also a part of waste.
It was impossible to walk along the streets of Hyderabad and not see scattered mounds of trash or inhale smoke from a nearby fire—a frequent method of disposal. It opened my eyes to the insufficient infrastructure around waste management. Across the country’s urbanized areas, trash clogs rivers, pollutes the streets, and attracts dogs, rodents, and mosquitos. On the other hand, despite the visibility of the waste, there exists an informal economy based on the backs of the poorest in society, who hunt through the trash mounds to find anything of value to sell; these people are a major source of recycling for the country.
India may be 8,000 miles away, but our battles are largely the same. If we collaborate, such as with the University’s learning abroad program, I think both sides have much to learn and to gain from each other. As far as Utah goes, there are ways to reduce our impact. Sign up for a home energy audit through the Sustainability Office where you can get free high efficiency shower-heads and faucet aerators installed at home to reduce your water use. Volunteer with the next cohort of Recycling Ambassadors to learn how to further reduce waste on campus. Have creative, sustainable ideas? Pursue a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund grant to turn your idea into reality and make a difference on campus. This is where, as students, we make our stand for a better world. Innovation starts here—maybe one day the solutions that we create here at the University will impact the world.
Sarah Martinez is a student sustainability ambassador for the Sustainability Office.