Growing up in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, Yonas Demissie never suffered from lack of access to clean water, but he knew from a young age that it was a serious problem in most parts of his home country.
He remembers reading news and watching documentaries about the droughts and related famine that still impact Ethiopia.
“Why can’t a three-year-old eat his breakfast?” the young Demissie would ask his parents and teachers. “A society should not have an excuse for a child to go hungry.”
According to Water.org, which works to improve access to safe water and sanitation, just 43 percent have access to clean water in Ethiopia. Individuals in rural areas of the nation sometimes walk more than three hours to collect water, often from shallow wells or unprotected ponds shared with local wildlife. Those water sources may contain diseases and parasites that can prevent the body’s ability to absorb proper nutrients, compounded by limited food supplies due to recurring droughts.
That is why Demissie, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University Tri-Cities, concentrates his research on monitoring, exploring, and evaluating the life-sustaining resource.
“I want my research in water to be my contribution to society,” he says. “Water is a critical resource that needs to be accessible, protected, and properly managed.”
One of Demissie’s major research projects at WSU Tri-Cities is to assess the potential impact of climate change on military facilities and operations. He is halfway through a $1 million, four-year U.S. Department of Defense project focusing on whether defense infrastructure and facilities could handle increased flooding and abnormal fluctuations in precipitation.
“DoD has many facilities across the globe and many of those installations are close to coastal areas,” he says. “They are worried about sea level rise, increased extreme storms, and how that will affect their facilities and operations. Our research is to assess flooding risk with the DoD facilities’ existing stormwater management system and whether it is sufficient or needs to be upgraded.”
Demissie also works with Hanford Site contractors and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in monitoring and modeling the groundwater flow from the nuclear site that created and now stores materials and chemicals associated with the creation of plutonium for the world’s first atomic bombs. They want to ensure that radiation and other toxic materials from the site do not contaminate aquifers and reservoirs.
Beyond Washington, Demissie’s work spans the globe, from the coasts shared by the United States and Mexico, to his roots in eastern Africa.
Demissie is researching ways to reduce the effects of nitrates and phosphorus in the Gulf of Mexico stemming from the biofuels industry. In the Midwest, biofuels like ethanol are made from corn, which requires increased nitrogen and phosphorus application. The compounds end up in the streams, then flow into the Gulf of Mexico and increase algal blooms, which may prevent vegetation from growing and fish from surviving.
Demissie is also working with a team to examine current flow patterns and allocations of the Nile River, and how the resource can be more effectively shared by all African countries associated with the river.
“Our knowledge regarding water availability in the Nile Basin and how much and where water is lost in the system is limited,” he says. “But our analysis shows that we get more water into the system than what was originally estimated. There is extra water that Ethiopia can use.”
Demissie hopes his research will not only help increase access and strategies for clean water, but also raise awareness about the importance of protecting the valuable resource.
“Having a good understanding of water as a resource and coming up with a better management strategy I believe is critical for most societies,” he says.