“Capital Turns Gas Chamber” read the headline: “As a toxic smog hung over Delhi for the third day and air quality worsened by the hour, the capital has declared a pollution emergency and banned the entry of trucks and construction activity … There are growing calls for bigger government action to tackle what doctors have declared a public health crisis … Residents are complaining of headaches, coughs and smarting eyes. All 6,000 schools in Delhi are closed until the end of the week. A Delhi government advisory has urged anyone with breathing difficulties to remain indoors and said everyone should avoid strenuous activity.” [Millennium Post]

Such was the news when graduate students at Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program arrived in Delhi for the start of their 10-day International Residency in India. The students had spent several months preparing for the sustainable development challenges they would encounter in India but few anticipated how immediate and pressing these challenges feel in rapidly developing countries such as India.

Daily, newspaper headlines address climate, water, agriculture, urbanization, and other sustainability challenges that have been the focus of the students’ graduate studies. The smog faded as the students traveled northwest by overnight train from Delhi to Jodhpur in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, where water security is an even more palpable issue than air quality.

If this next wave of urban development is not sustainable, we may not get another chance. What happens in India, and Urban Asia and Africa more generally during these next few decades, will define the Anthropocene and the future of humanity. ~ Dr. Michael Mortimer, CLiGS Director

As part of their International Residency experience, graduate students in the XMNR program have been working with their professional peers in India, specifically in and around the cities of Delhi and Jodhpur, to better understand the challenges of global sustainability and the opportunities for leadership and innovation in the Anthropocene. Delhi, the national capital and one of the world’s largest and fastest growing cities, and Jodhpur, a smaller but also rapidly growing urban center, are on the front lines of sustainable development in India and worldwide.

Hull and students

According to Dr. Bruce Hull, Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), “As urban populations, especially in Asia and Africa, are projected to grow by 2-3 billion people between now and 2050, more new buildings and infrastructure will be built in the next few decades than have ever been built in human history.”

Michael Mortimer, Founding Director of CLiGS and an XMNR faculty member, elaborated “If this next wave of urban development is not sustainable, we may not get another chance. What happens in India, and Urban Asia and Africa more generally during these next few decades, will define the Anthropocene and the future of humanity.”

Below are brief descriptions and links to additional information regarding some of the people and organizations that students have worked with while in India.

Water & Sanitation in Urban Slums – WaterAid India

Students engaged in a panel discussion with staff from WaterAid India, including V K Madhavan the Chief Executive, followed by site visits to two informal settlement communities, Harijan Basti and Pankaj Garden, where WaterAid is working with public and private partners, such as the community-based FORCE organization, to resolve water supply and sanitation issues. WaterAid has been working in India since 1986 and plays a significant role in the WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) sector, nationally and in local communities. Their mission is to transform the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people by improving access to WASH services.

Sustainable Practice in India: A Panel Discussion

Gender / Caste & Sustainability: A Panel Discussion

Water Security in Rural Villages – Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF)

JBF was established as a nonprofit organization in response to the burgeoning water crises facing the Thar Desert in the state of Rajasthan, Western India, and the vast potential for participatory water management as a path to water security. JBF exists to provide an enabling environment in which the desert communities of the Marwar region can access adequate drinking water for humans and animals. JBF’s organizational structure is an amalgam of 20,000 village-level volunteers assisted by members of a professional and technical workforce. Our students spent several days working with the JBF staff at the Water Resource Centre and visiting project sites led by community-based volunteers in rural villages.

Student Projects & Reflections

village classroom

Note: Special thanks to our partners at CLI/Solstice and especially Keith Goyden, Chicu Lokgariwar, and Hemant Tiwari for organizing and coordinating such exceptional opportunities for our students.


David Robertson headshot

 Senior Fellow Dr. David Robertson received a Ph.D. and Master of Landscape Architecture degrees from Virginia Tech and a B.A. in Art & Architecture from Montana State University. He directs the Executive Master of Natural Resources programs, advises students, and teaches courses in sustainable development, urban ecology, and environmental governance. His primary areas of research focus are green infrastructure systems and sustainable development strategies, and his work has been published in Society & Natural ResourcesConservation BiologyEcology & SocietyEnvironmental Management, and Environmental Science & Policy.