Vassar professor of geology discusses hardship of water shortages in Trinidad

On April 5, Jill S. Schneiderman, associate dean of the faculty and professor of geology at Vassar College, gave the fourth annual American Rock Salt lecture on geology.

The lecture was titled "Justice, Leadership, and Integrated Science" and Schneiderman began it with "Ba Sheit," a Yiddish term meaning destined. She explained that everyone is destined to accomplish great things on this earth and that sometimes one must take risks to make these accomplishments.

Schneiderman began her work in hard rock petrology, studying metamorphic rocks. She also researched many aspects of geology such as the geological history of the Nile and Yangtze Deltas, quality of watersheds feeding into New York City's water supply and the formation of mountain ranges. She has also written a book titled The Earth Around Us: Maintaining A Livable Planet, which has earned a spot on the top 10 geology books of the year, according to Discover Magazine.

Schneiderman explained that she "takes risks in and outside of science." She shared stories from her trip to Trinidad, which as a foreign country was a risk to begin with. Trinidad is one of the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, close to Venezuela. She noted that Trinidad is not a paradise island. It is highly industrialized, and the population was full of diversity, including those who called themselves Afro-Trinidadian and Indo-Trinidadian.

She proceeded with a PowerPoint titled "The Importance of Water." The PowerPoint included a vast amount of information, including numerous maps and graphs. July through December is Trinidad's wet season while January through June is dry. The majority of water in Trinidad is surface water, amounting to about 75 percent while the remaining 25 percent is ground water. Although surface water can be easily seen during the treatment process, she said, it has a higher risk of becoming polluted.

The graphs showed a higher demand for water than supply available in Trinidad. This poses the major threat of a devastating water shortage. Schneiderman raised the question, "If so much water is being used up, what is it being used for?" Another graph displayed the answer. Fifty percent of the water use was "unaccounted for." In North America, this statistic is only 15 percent.

Schneiderman followed this with shocking pictures of people living with this struggle. Waiting each day, bucket in hand, for a truck to arrive, they thirst for water regardless of where it has been taken from or what health risks it may present. This, as she described, is known as unimproved water.

She also discussed the impact of water supply and demand on women. Since the majority women are in charge of keeping the home, it is vital for them to have water to carry out many of their chores, such as washing dishes and cleaning clothes. In a picture of protests against the situation, many women were shown holding up signs, one of which read, "Housewives need more water." In order for some women to get water, they had to walk to the pumps, mostly at night because of their hectic schedules during the day. These circumstances heighten the risk of various problems, ranging in severity from falling asleep in class to rape and other violence. The extent of this problem was so devastating that, upon contact with Schneiderman, two local village women explained that they'd rather have no electricity than live without water.

The people of Trinidad also use water for religious purposes, commonly during prayer. Schneiderman said that water holds such great importance to the people of Trinidad that they often include it in their folklore. "Mama Glow" is the story of a half-woman/half-river snake who slaps her tail on the river whenever people contaminate the water.

Schneiderman ended her lecture by reinforcing her message. "Science can be a powerful agent of change if we are willing to take risks," she said. She encouraged students to get involved, take risks, and make changes in the world to create a brighter future.