Growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Palash Sanyal (MSW’18) witnessed firsthand how valuable water is to millions of people every day.
Those vivid memories now drive Sanyal to have such a keen interest in protecting and saving water around the globe.
“Water, the struggle, the pain to get water− we had to suffer,” he says. “Some days, there was no running water. So, it was a big deal when a water truck would be coming around at a specific time of the day, after two or three days, and sometimes that was more important than going to school.”
“That was such a visible sign I saw – to see what water can do, the necessity of the resource,” says Sanyal, being honoured this year with a USask Alumni Achievement One to Watch Award. On-campus, he is the strategic partnership and project manager at the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS).
“That was a significant moment in my life – how do you survive with water with certain limitations? You have 50 litres, or just half a bucket of water left; you have to cook and clean and do everything with what is left. So, How do you survive?”
For much of his time growing up, Sanyal’s father was ill and unable to work and in need of constant care. Often, the responsibility for taking care of his father fell to him as his mom had to work to try and support the family.
“When my mom was gone working, I was the primary caregiver.”
His mom had a good job, but only received a fraction of what a male would make in the very same role. Money was always tight for the family.
‘My mother chose wisely’
“There were days my mom would come home and then she’d have to make the decision: Is she sending us to school the next day? Or are we getting our dinner?” Sanyal recalls, “My mother chose wisely. She had dreams for us and always chose education for us as her first priority.”
If there was one trait from his mother Sanyal has developed, it would be courage. Literally, as a single parent, she showed her son that taking a step forward in life takes courage. Also, she engrained in Sanyal that his road to any sort of prosperity was through education, and he realized early on that was going to be his path.
“The result of failure would have been harsh, so I didn’t have an option. There was only one direction I could go if I wanted to make my life into something.”
“I learned I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
His mother encouraged him to look past the borders of Bangladesh and think about the world and where he could go in life.
“That was really big for me. That was kind of a turning point moment in my life,” he says. “I knew I had a window to the world, but my mom said no, you actually have a door you can go through to do the things you want to do.”
Sanyal plunged himself into his studies to try and set himself up for success down the road. He was in his undergrad engineering class One of the things he did was listen to TED Talks to learn from scholars speaking around the globe. He eventually became a volunteer translator for TED by listening to speakers and changing it into Bengali.
One day, he received an email from TED officials, asking him to come to America to speak about his experience as a volunteer for TED. For the first time in his life, Sanyal was stepping outside of his country and he was off to California. Soon he found himself working for TED as well as getting a fellowship from UNESCO.
His focus on water begins
These journeys kickstarted his academic and professional career leading to USask and Saskatoon where he developed a strong network of colleagues and friends in Canada. In Between, he studied, traveled and worked in multiple countries focusing on sustainability and water.
“In 2010, there were 54 public toilets in the city for 20 million people. Only three of them were functional,” he says. “That was one of the things that baffled me and that was one of my master’s research question: How can we make Dhaka city’s public toilet system sustainable and are people thinking about it? Why haven’t we done more research on it?”
He found people, no matter the income level, would be willing to pay to use a clean and functioning toilet. The social science piece of that engineering puzzle needs to be examined as well, says Sanyal, and takes that approach to everything he researches now.
Jay Famiglietti, the executive director of GIWS, hired Sanyal few years ago, understanding his potential. Sanyal says it’s very important to him to have a mentor like Famiglietti.
“For someone like me who came to Canada as an immigrant, I’m very privileged to find someone like him. He’s a world-renowned scientist, an effective science communicator and a servant leader who promotes youth leadership.”
Sanyal expresses that mentors like Famiglietti play a significant role in shaping visions and transforming ideas into action. Under Famiglietti's supervision, Sanyal recently managed and co-authored the valuing water global assessment report, a scientific review informing investors regarding industry impact on freshwater.
"Our water resources require much greater attention. Water has been a messenger of climate change that we have ignored for so long. The private sector has a more prominent role in building a sustainable water future. Universities like USask can provide the necessary science to companies and organizations to make the most informed decision."
He says the USask campus is known around the world for having the finest people exploring the new frontiers in food security and water security.
“Sustainable development and water security have engrained into every aspect of my life, and thanks to USask, I have been able to contribute to moving the needle on water security.”
Sanyal may be many time zones away from Dhaka, but USask is now home for him.
“I feel like I'm home here with people I belong with."
The 2022 Alumni Achievement Awards were held at TCU Place in Saskastoon on Monday, May 9. You can view the photo gallery here.