New Role: Canadian Water Network SYPC Representative

1 04 2014

I have a new role! I was very excited to find out in February that I would be joining the:

2014-2015 Students and Young Professionals Committee (SYPC) of the Canadian Water Network. 

I am honoured to be selected as one of 21 talented graduate students and young professionals who make up this committee for an 18-month term from March 2014. Having recently returned from our 1st National meeting in Toronto, I am looking forward to all of the opportunities that I can both provide to other young Canadians, and participate in through this committee, such as this workshop:



My role is to be a Regional Representative for the Pacific Region of Canada, and to collaborate with the other reps in BC to organize and host some amazing workshops, social meet and greets, networking events, and other skill-building activities.



If you are living in British Columbia, and interested in water issues – whether from an industry, academic or social point of view, I invite you to join us for any events that we put on. Please contact me if you would like more information!

– Sarah Topps 2014

{Apologies for the long gap between posts. I have been working hard to finish my Masters’ degree, and since my defense is tomorrow, I expect to have more time to start writing regularly on here again.}


What can kill you in less than 3 hours, and be treated with salt and clean water?

9 11 2010

No, it’s not a jellyfish sting, or lethal poison – the surprising answer is Cholera.

According to the CBC, over 7000 people have been infected in Haiti over the last week, resulting in the deaths of 500 individuals, many of whom could have easily been saved if Haiti had the proper infrastructure in place to treat them. There has been no cholera outbreak in Haiti for around 50 years, and the initial reaction was one of confusion as many Haitians just did not know how to avoid the disease (BBC News).

Directly from the World Health Organization website: “Cholera is an easily treatable disease. Up to 80% of people can be treated successfully through prompt administration of oral rehydration salts (WHO/UNICEF ORS standard sachet). Very severely dehydrated patients require administration of intravenous fluids. Such patients also require appropriate antibiotics to diminish the duration of diarrhoea, reduce the volume of rehydration fluids needed, and shorten the duration of V. cholerae excretion. Mass administration of antibiotics is not recommended, as it has no effect on the spread of cholera and contributes to increasing antimicrobial resistance. In order to ensure timely access to treatment, cholera treatment centres (CTCs) should be set up among the affected populations. With proper treatment, the case fatality rate should remain below 1%.”

Cholera is a disease which is believed to have originated in India, and which thrives in disaster-type situations like this one, such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes which disrupt normal water treatment routines. The original outbreak is believed to have started approximately three weeks ago, but the number of cases have drastically increased since Hurricane Tomas struck last Friday, causing flooding across western Haiti. Unfortunately the bad news continues to grow, as one of the rivers which has been identified as a source of the epidemic is soon expected to overflow with excess water.

The best intervention strategy for reducing cholera deaths is through a combination of  controlling the disease spread through provisions of safe water, proper sanitation and immediate education about the disease to the affected population group. Infected individuals can be difficult to identify since most are asymptomatic, but insuring access to quick treatment to those persons who do show signs of the illness helps to prevent further spread and save many lives. Providing safe water and sanitation is a major challenge, particularly in emergency situations, however it has been shown to be the critical factor in reducing the number and spread of infections.

Perhaps this is another opportunity for the use of SODIS (solar disinfection of drinking water) to be taught and used as a weapon against the further spread of this deadly disease. This simple method of disinfecting drinking water can be readily achieved by filling a clear plastic bottle with collected water (which has low turbidity) and leaving it out in the sun for more than 6 hours. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth follow-up post about SODIS, how and when it works, and benefits of using it to disinfect water.)

Written by Sarah Topps – 2010

Read more:

Geothermal Power: An underrated alternative source of energy

30 03 2010

For today’s post I am very excited to introduce my friend Peter Buchanan as my first guest writer for ReachFWD.

Peter is currently studying Petroleum Engineering at the University of Alberta and he hopes to study geothermal electricity at grad school. He was explaining the concept to me and it sounded so interesting that I asked him to write a brief explanation for my readers on ReachFWD.


When we think of alternative sources of energy, renewable resources that can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, often the most vivid pictures that come to mind are wind and solar power. Evidently, this is because the sun and the wind are so ubiquitous in our daily lives. We can feel their energy so it is only natural to notice them. This is probably why geothermal power, another renewable source of energy has been largely overlooked until recently.

Geothermal power comes from energy generated by heat in the earth. The material that makes up our planet gets hotter and hotter as is gets closer and closer to the core of our planet. This energy can be seen on the surface in the form of hot springs, geysers and volcanoes. There is an essentially infinite amount of energy beneath our feet, waiting to be utilized.

(Diagram from

Geothermal Energy is not new; the first Geothermal Power Station was build in 1911 in Larderello, Italy[1]. Since then, it has become a common source of energy in places like New Zealand, Iceland, The Phillipines and the Geysers in California. Typically it works like this: Two wells are drilled into a geothermal reservoir (rock hot enough to transfer sufficient energy to water). The geothermal reservoir may contain water or steam in network of pores and fractures that make up the rock or it might be dry. Hot water is extracted from the wells and its energy is used to drive a turbine which generates electrical power. The cooled water is then re-injected down the other well where it reheats and continues in the loop.

While there are various types of geothermal plants, the three most prominent types are: Flash steam, Dry steam and Binary Cycle.

Flash steam plants work when high pressure, high temperature water coming up the producer well are directed in to a large vessel. Because of the large pressure difference the water flashes into steam which is used to power the turbine.

Dry steam plants are used when the wells produce only steam. This can be the case in very high temperature reservoirs. The steam from the reservoir directly turns the turbine and is then condensed into water and re-injected into the ground.

Binary Cycle plants use a working fluid (commonly iso-pentane) with a lower boiling temperature than water to turn the turbine[2]. Hot water from the reservoir heats the fluid in a heat exchanger. The fluid then boils to turn the turbine, while the water is re-injected in a closed loop. Binary Cycle plants allow for lower temperature reservoirs to be used.

(Diagram from:

If geothermal power is so clean, efficient and abundant, why isn’t it being used for all of our electricity needs across the planet, you ask? Until recently, geothermal power was not viable from and economic or technological point of view in most areas of the world. In places like Iceland, New Zealand and the Philippines where hot reservoir rock can be found close to the surface it was used but in many areas of the world the resource would be too deep to drill for economically if even possible.

(Diagram from:

Fortunately, with today’s advancements in technology such as binary cycle plants and enhanced geothermal systems (EGS; where rock is artificially fractures to allow for more permeability in the rocks and more flow/heat transfer) many new geothermal resources may be unlocked in the near future. Geothermal power is not likely to ever completely replace fossil fuels, however combined with other renewable sources of energy it has the potential to contribute to a much larger percentage of the world’s energy consumption.

Pros of Geothermal Power:

  • Clean and renewable with little or no emissions.
  • Reliable. It doesn’t depend on the weather to produce electricity, so it is always on.
  • Many of the engineering concepts are very similar to Oil & Gas, so we have a head start on the learning curve.
  • Can already compete economically in some regions and the list of regions is growing.

Cons of Geothermal Power:

  • Requires a large initial capital investment (like all power plants) which can take time to recover the costs.
  • Not economical in many regions.
  • Reservoirs can be depleted of heat locally, but will regenerate the heat over time.
  • Not enough awareness!


  1. Larderello Worlds First Geothermal Power Station, Renewable Energy UK,
  2. How Geothermal Works, Nevada Geothermal Power,
  3. What is Geothermal, Canadian Geothermal Energy Association,
  4. Basics, Geothermal Energy Association,

How to Make Money and Change the World

1 12 2009

Recently a good friend of mine and his family heard that I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving and were thoughtful enough to invite me down to visit with them for the weekend. Needless to say, the meal was decadent, and both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. [An extended thank you to the Vitek family!]

While I was down in the USA, my friend took me to meet some friends of his for a night out in small-town America. We visited a local bar, ate bagels slathered in cheese and spicy meats and chatted about our various university degrees and jobs. One of his friends, Tsewang, was a young woman from Nepal who I chatted with for an hour or so about international development and social entrepreneurship (two of my favourite topics!) as well as some less cumbersome subjects. At one point near the end of our conversation, I mentioned to her that I was hoping to start a pilot project for solar water disinfection (SODIS) in Angola next year, and she told me that, being from Canada, I ought to look up an organization called Dream Now“.

After returning from the weekend, I had all but forgotten about her wonderful suggestion when I stumbled onto their website this afternoon. Reading descriptions about how they literally built blanket forts in various rooms across the country in order to facilitate comfortable discussion, I was absolutely intrigued. Ravenous for more of this truly out-of-the-box approach, I dug a little deeper on their website and discovered this jewel of a bookHow to Make Money and Change the World

Not only was it one of the most helpful and innovative books I have read on the subject of finding a job in our generation – it was free! Beautifully designed and available online for download, and redistribution, I thought – well! that’s my Christmas shopping done for every friend I have who’s about to graduate from international development! (On a fair note, being a student, I otherwise probably was just going to wish them Merry Christmas on their facebook walls or twitter, so this is quite the improvement as far as free gifts go...)

Occupation: Change the World

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in working for positive change – either in international development, or other fields of social change.

– Sarah Topps

Seawater rising? Or the riverbeds sinking!

22 09 2009

Climate change has become a big issue in recent decades, and one of the major indicators that many people point to as a worrying potential problem is the rise in sea levels globally. There are island nations buying up land in foreign countries, people moving further inland, worse floods every year from tropical storms and hurricanes – yet perhaps an even more worrying problem is that the land itself is SINKING!

Scientists in the well-known and respected journal “Nature Geoscience” have recently published an article on the impact of human activities on the land drop towards sea level in many deltas worldwide. This closure towards the water, they claim, is far greater than the rise in sea level faced by the same inhabitants. Their abstract, below, will give a quick glimpse into the problem:

Many of the world’s largest deltas are densely populated and heavily farmed. Yet many of their inhabitants are becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding and conversions of their land to open ocean. The vulnerability is a result of sediment compaction from the removal of oil, gas and water from the delta’s underlying sediments, the trapping of sediment in reservoirs upstream and floodplain engineering in combination with rising global sea level. Here we present an assessment of 33 deltas chosen to represent the world’s deltas. We find that in the past decade, 85% of the deltas experienced severe flooding, resulting in the temporary submergence of 260,000 km2. We conservatively estimate that the delta surface area vulnerable to flooding could increase by 50% under the current projected values for sea-level rise in the twenty-first century. This figure could increase if the capture of sediment upstream persists and continues to prevent the growth and buffering of the deltas.”

Taken from:


Chao Phraya River Basin






















Chao Phraya, (see image above) the river which flows through Bangkok is one of the worst affected – parts of the delta have sunk 15cm (six inches)! Compare this to the global rate of sea level rise due to climate change at only 1.8-3.0mm per year – nearly a tenfold difference!

Scientists estimate that the area of land vulnerable to flooding will increase by about 50% in the next 40 years due to a combination of climate change causing sea levels to rise and land sinking due to human causes.

“This study shows there are a host of human-induced factors that already cause deltas to sink much more rapidly than could be explained by sea level alone.” Journal Geoscience Article

The researchers report that the flow of sediment down to the Chao Phraya delta has been almost entirely blocked, due to  irrigation, damming the river, and directing the main flow through just a few channels. In rivers with no dams or man-made controls, the sediment would pass down the river and add to the height of the land, a process known as aggradation. (see image below) Now, the sediment can’t reach many delta areas. The further extraction of water and gas for irrigation, drinking, and industry further compacts the land.


As reported in the BBC yesterday, “Rivers affected include the Colorado, Nile, Pearl, Rhone and Yangtze. Of the 33 major deltas studied, 24 were found to be sinking. About half a billion people live in these regions…

Deltas with “virtually no aggradation (supply of sediment) and/or very high accelerated compaction”
Chao Phraya, Thailand
Colorado, Mexico
Krishna, India
Nile, Egypt
Pearl, China
Po, Italy
Rhone, France
Sao Francisco, Brazil
Tone, Japan
Yangtze, China
Yellow, China

As the ground falls and sea level rises, people become more vulnerable to inundation during storms.
Every year, about 10 million people are being affected by storm surges,” said Irina Overeem, another of the study team from the University of Colorado.

So should we be worrying about the inevitable rise in sea levels? Or more focused on the major impacts we are still having on these sinking river deltas, which around the world are home to almost half a billion human beings?

– Sarah Topps

A Road Map to World Harmony

4 08 2009

I always have trouble when people ask me to explain succintly what I am learning from my degree (International Development Studies) and why I am taking classes in so many different areas. Last year I had made a rough diagram which attempted to demonstrate how all the areas were interconnected – i.e. agriculture is affected by environment, women’s rights are affected by religion, modern-day governments are affected by political geography, which in turn is affected by history etc.

Areas of Study - Interconnections

LANG = language, EDUC = education, NUTR = Nutrition, RELG = Religion, AGRI = agriculture, GEOG = geography, ECON = economics/economy, ENVIR = environment

*since making this diagram, I have added a few more areas to my degree, and there are certainly more which could be connected, these are just my chosen areas of focus.

More recently, Toyota has released an interesting interactive website showing the same idea as shown above, but with suggestions on how we can improve on the problems which face the world, including energy, education, health and coexistence – just to mention a few.

I thought about trying to duplicate it on here somehow, but it’s probably best to just explore it yourself.

– Sarah Topps

Satellite Tracking of Schistosomiasis Snails

3 04 2009

Schistosomiasis, a preventable disease spread by fresh-water snails, infects millions of people in developing countries every year, and globally it is second only to malaria in terms of its negative effect on health and economic well-being.

Scientists at Ohio State University may have discovered a novel way to track and prevent the disease… from space!

Read more about it here.

– Sarah Topps

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