Prof. Edward A. McBean


Mr. President, Members of the Faculty, Fellow Recipients of awards, Students and Friends!

Thank you indeed, for your award of this prestigious Ton Duc Thang University for the Lifetime Achievement Award. It is great to be here on this important occasion.

First, thank you Mr. President, for your kind words of introduction. Let me begin with the statement that it is very gratifying to be the recipient of this award, in recognition of the research and engineering activities which I have been involved with, over the last 50 years. However, before I go any further, please note that I chose my words carefully in my previous sentence - I must first acknowledge that the true recipients of this award include the many excellent people with whom I have worked over these five decades.  I have had the opportunity to learn from some of the very best, I have worked with many enthusiastic faculty, fellow researchers, and many students.  The other, highly relevant dimension, is that I absolutely believe that water security is one of the most challenging issues that the world’s population will have to deal with, over this next century.  As I frequently tell my students, in the field of water security, you will not run out of things to do. In that regard, I would like to discuss for a few minutes, some of the issues related to water security that I believe are particularly relevant.

Water security is going to be one of the most important challenges as we move forward in this century. Urbanization and technology are creating new governance expectations, climate change is ongoing, and the world’s needs are shifting.  Water security is becoming one of the key features – water is not a nice-to-have, it is absolutely critical.  While the world’s populations have doubled over the last fifty years, water usage has tripled. By 2030, 60% of the human population will reside in urban areas. While accomplishing what we have completed during this last fifty years, the human population has involved utilization of much of the low-hanging fruit.  We must now be more proactive and diligent to identify the needs and research elements as we move forward.  In particular, as examples of these needs, I mention a few examples:

(i) Wastewater treatment is no longer just a useful idea, it is now being widely recognized as resource recovery.

(ii) We are learning, in some ways, about many of the challenging issues associated with water; these include newly created chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, and additives to food and fire prevention chemicals, and so many more, but we are now learning that many of these are problematic.  While our experience is being gained we are exposing the human population, and in many circumstances, causing subsequent illness and death.  PCBs were heralded as the answer to lubrication – the PCBs retain their lubricating characteristics virtually forever, were rushed into service, but this was followed by the realization of the cancer-causing potential, once the widespread use of PCBs had taken place.  These and so many other chemicals don’t break down to simpler products, aren’t treated by standard treatment technologies, and cause cancer;

(iii) countries are diverting water for beneficial use within their own country through impoundment, but this influences the amount of water for downstream users that are wondering why the historical water levels in the rivers are no longer contained within the river.

However, while these are examples of issues which we as a profession are dealing with, we also are gaining much.   Real-time meta-data are accelerating, and for technology potentials, the pathway isn’t clear – but that is part of our opportunity. We are going to be re-inventing the world.

In examples such as I have used above, there are literally thousands of chemicals and pathogens that are being identified and discovered. To put context to this, there are more than 25000 pharmaceuticals now being sold in the Canadian marketplace.  We know little about the migration and exposure potential of these pharmaceuticals in the environment.  High percentages of pharmaceuticals are not metabolized in the human body and hence end up in the feces and urine.  We are now seeing in some situations, individual fish in the receiving waters that have both female and male sexual organs. We now see degreasers which are highly effective at degreasing automobile parts, but we now know that vinyl chloride, a byproduct of decomposition of degreasers, causes cancer in humans.  Again, I could use literally thousands of examples to demonstrate the concerns.  We have much to do in the water security field. As a note in this regard, I teach a course in risk assessment to senior students at my University – about half way through the course, the students are indicating “you are scaring the heck out of me”. 

However, I am also an optimist. On the positive side, we now have instruments that can detect some of these chemicals at nano-levels.  Enormous strides in analytical technologies – these are newly-developed and can measure down to levels unheard of, not many years ago.  We now have sensors, and different ways of measuring the presence/absence of some of these chemicals by electrical conductivities – not measuring the detailed characteristics but still, very helpful in understanding that something in the water has changed and we must pay more attention to potential contaminants.

We now have technologies to transmit the information to a central processor for example, and Artificial Intelligence technologies that can identify when certain chemicals are present.  The world is changing quickly and we must keep abreast.

However (isn’t there always an ‘however’ in this type of presentation?).

No-one said this is going to be easy – we need to be diligent, work to identify the contributions that as individuals we can make. The timing of our next set of adventures is occurring when humanity needs us most.    The human populations will be cresting, water will become short in supply, sea levels will be rising.  Those who choose to pursue research in water security will be facing some very exciting challenges in this professional career.

While we all have expertise, we can never claim we have mastered it –with each advance in our understanding, we are exposed to yet more that we do not know – my philosophy is never lose your wonder and thirst for learning.

At this point in time, I would like to draw upon the comments of Richard Marceau, the former president of the Canadian Academy of Engineering.  Richard indicated that tenaciousness and stubbornness are two sides of the same coin. When you succeed, people say you’ve been tenacious. When you don’t succeed, people say you were just plain stubborn.

(it is noteworthy that I have been accused of being both).

Now that I have hopefully inspired you with at least some dimensions of concern regarding water security, and challenged everyone to pursue these advances, let me digress for a few moments about some of my personal experience.

It is worth mentioning, one of my favorite questions which I always ask of students – what do you want to be in 10 to 15 years – and I love getting their very diverse answers and sometimes a ‘hmm, I’m not really sure’. I must confess that if they ever asked me that question even today, I would have to confess that I don’t have an answer to that question but indicate perhaps I will know in 10 to 15 more years.  I have so much more to learn. That is the beauty of what we need to do – look for challenges, look for opportunities, and we will continue to have interesting things to do.

As I indicated at the outset, a result of my decision to pursue my profession as an educator, I have had the opportunity to learn from many, and experience the joy of finding exciting opportunities and what I am pleased to indicate is that some of my most cherished memories are seeing the students with whom I have worked, make contributions themselves – I have seen them go on to do many exciting things – some are professors, some are practitioners, and many are sprinkled over the world, making interesting contributions to society – Hence, I can say that one of my most cherished memories is, yes, I did contribute at least in some small way, to what they are going to accomplish in their careers.

The real achievement in life is being able to look back and feel you’ve lived a life rich in meaning.  As they say, life is more about the journey than the destination.  My philosophy has always been, find something you love to do, work hard at it, and good will come from it.

So what is my recommendation – we all need to be curiously humble, and listen to those around us. We need to enjoy life and our work, and give it all we can.  And for all of this hard work, I express my appreciation, and you have both my trust and my gratitude because the wellness of my grandchildren in part depends on you.

Finally, and in closing, I again express my sincere appreciation for this important award. It is great to be once again in Vietnam, and to be at Ton Duc Thang University at this ceremony.  I truly appreciate the recognition for this award and thank you all, and I express to all of you, that you may enjoy a happy and fulfilling life.