Keeping Water Safe: Christophe Chung ’06
Christophe Chung (center) in eastern Ethiopia, 2010, conducting
In the Bardian
Few of us truly appreciate how our most essential element—water—makes its way from the source, through plumbing, and out a tap. In fact, millions around the world consider basic water and sewerage systems a far-off luxury. Fortunately, people such as Christophe Chung ’06, a water supply and sanitation consultant at the World Bank, are helping to bring the life-sustaining liquid to some of the world’s most water-scarce places, North Africa and the Middle East.
The World Bank lends money for capital projects, provides infrastructure-planning expertise, and collaborates with public agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private firms to initiate projects in many developing countries. Chung is an urban water specialist working on teams that aim to upgrade and expand water infrastructure in Beirut, improve basic service delivery in slum areas of Cairo, and help implement pollution control programs in Lebanon and Egypt. He also works on a capacity-building project based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which trains public officials to better manage water resources. “I do believe the work is needed, especially now with so many transitions in the region,” says Chung. “But while I’ve developed a real love for infrastructure and utility management, I’ve come to realize that talking about it
may not be the best pick-up line to use.”
Bringing water and sewerage systems to poor urban and rural communities is critical to economic progress and social stability. Chung points out that contaminated water is the leading cause of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid—diseases that contribute to high infant and child mortality rates in some African nations. Illness decreases worker productivity, prevents children from attending school, and increases medical expenses for families already living on meager incomes. In addition, no industrial or agricultural product can be made or grown, packaged, and distributed without ample, sanitary water. Put simply, clean water saves lives.
Chung helps with the planning and preparation necessary for getting these complex projects off the ground. Says Chung, “The World Bank requires that all proposed projects go through an extensive review to ensure that the project is beneficial, realistic, and self-sustaining by the time the bank’s involvement is complete. We also make sure that social and environmental safeguards are taken into account so that the project doesn’t have an adverse impact on people and the environment. We consult with local governments and stakeholders, NGOs, community leaders, and universities to ensure that those affected by and benefitting from the project are taken into account in our project design and implementation. Also, at a very macro level, we have to evaluate the country’s existing capacity, finances and budgeting, and its ability to maintain or operate the system after it’s built.”
Chung’s interest in addressing the challenges faced by residents of the Middle East began while he was a political studies major at Bard. However, it was an art history course about war and architecture that took his political thinking in a different direction. He says, “I was initially concerned with the broader question of how peace could be brought about through political system reform, but then I came to believe that stability is also contingent upon basic considerations, like how people of different ethnicities and religions interact with each other in their day-to-day lives. That led me to examine the role of public space in postwar stability and redevelopment, which drew me to explore the political dimensions of urban planning and architecture.”
When he was a senior, Chung won a Watson Fellowship, which provides college graduates with a $25,000 stipend for international travel and independent study. Fellows are chosen from among the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Recipients stay abroad for 12 months and delve deeply into a particular issue or project. Chung traveled to rural communities in Peru, Bolivia, Vietnam, and India, where he studied terrace farms—multileveled fields built into mountains and hills and supported by various types of retaining walls.
Terraced fields reduce erosion and water runoff, making them more water efficient. Chung became particularly interested in how traditional farming techniques can be used to adapt to climate change and water scarcity. He also documented how rural residents maintain their agricultural livelihoods in the face of political difficulties, globalized food markets, and the constant pull of the city. “Rural farmers continually wrestle with the idea of leaving the farming life and moving to the city. This tension got me interested in urban migration and growth.”
Returning to the United States, Chung worked as a program assistant in New York City for the UN Development Programme’s Equator Initiative and enrolled in the master’s program in urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2009. “Going from Bard to MIT seemed to fit,” he says. “What I appreciated at both places were the small classes, discussion-based learning, and emphasis on innovation and critical thinking.” In his master’s program, Chung became deeply interested in studying water and sanitation infrastructure. He spent the summer of 2010 in Ethiopia working for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; he conducted water-quality assessments in four refugee camps, where many children suffered from water-borne diseases. The very existence of the camps—their size and the relative spontaneity with which they appear—is exactly the type of social problem that urban planners hope to deter. Wrote Chung in his blog from Ethiopia: “The fact that a settlement of thousands—a virtual city—can form in the middle of nowhere, and a small office of individuals is made responsible for all aspects of the refugees’ lives, is challenging, to say the least.”
Chung has been working at the World Bank for more than a year, and he plans on staying put. “I like Washington, D.C.,” he says. “After traveling so much, I’m happy to be settled. I’ve even started buying stuff for myself. Like furniture.”Read the fall 2012 issue of the Bardian: