A Passion for Urban Water Issues

By: Lindsay Key

More than half of the world’s people live in a city, and that number continues to rise.

The booming human population—expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050—coupled with the gravitation to cities for resources is responsible for the increase. Unfortunately, this trend puts a heavy burden on natural systems and city infrastructures, such as transportation, electricity, disposal facilities, sanitation, and water supply.

Tiona Johnson is dedicating her career to addressing access to water.

“Water is a necessity for life, and the pressure of urbanization continues to occur everywhere,” said Johnson, who graduates with dual master’s degrees in Global Natural Resources (GMNR) and Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) in December 2016.  “That’s why I want to focus on international consulting on urban water management.”

Johnson first became passionate about urban water issues in 2014 when she participated in an International Field Experience (IFE) in South Africa as part of her NR 5954 Study Abroad course, offered by the  the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS).

During the trip she and other participants interviewed South African residents about unplanned settlements cropping up across the country, and examined how they impact local watersheds and human health.

“The goal of the IFE was to expose students to the complexities of managing water resources and infrastructure in the context of politically complicated and economically dynamic nation, especially one experiencing increasing water insecurity in the face of increased consumption and the effects of climate change,” said Dr. Courtney Kimmel, adjunct professor for the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Master of Natural Resources program. “South Africa is particularly interesting because access to water is guaranteed in the post-Apartheid constitution as a fundamental human right, but building the delivery systems, both physical and political, has not been an easy task.”

Informal settlements are cropping up in South Africa due to the gap between urbanization rates and available housing, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.  In Gauteng, South Africa’s most urbanized province, 24 percent of the population lives in an informal settlement.  These settlements, usually on the outskirts of town and far from resources, are also often in fragile environmental areas such as flood zones, steep slopes, and unique natural habitats including wetlands.

“By interviewing the people there, we found that there is no streamlined or ‘easy’ solution to solving these issues,” said Johnson. “There are so many compounding factors intertwined and since these problems are coming about in unfamiliar ways, it’s really going to take a variety of individuals with different interests, abilities, and backgrounds all working together to find solutions.”

Johnson’s experience in South Africa convinced her to complete two other IFEs—in China and India—earning “triple crown” status achieved by only one other student in the program so far. Visiting as many countries as possible—and studying their water management practices— is key to her goal of becoming an international consultant.

“The United States tries to be an innovative leader in water management,” said Johnson, “but, there is a lot we can learn from other cities outside the United States in how they are handling their water issues.  People across the world have similar water problems and there is great value in seeing what works and what doesn’t in other contexts.”

Courses in the Masters of Natural Resources Program that were particularly helpful to Johnson’s career include: Water and Conflict, taught by Drs. Desiree Di Mauro and Rebecca Patton; and Landscape Systems and Strategies, taught by Dr. Daniel Marcucci.

During her tenure in the program, she also completed an internship with the Henrico County Planning Department and a GIS Research Assistantship with The Water Institute in UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health.  She is currently a remote intern for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives.

“The GMNR program provided me with resources and opportunities, and helped me to identify clear goals for making a difference in international water resources management,” said Johnson.