By Emma Sarran Webster
“You ever throw a rock in and make foam holes?” Sahithi Pingali asked her friend, as the two stood on the edge of a lake in Bangalore, India. He had not. So Pingali picked up a stone and tossed it into the water, where it broke through one of the many mounds of toxic white foam covering the surface, creating a clearing that briefly revealed the otherwise concealed water.
It was a moment of levity during a serious mission: to combat the severe pollution in Bangalore’s lakes, which serves as one of four storylines in the documentary, Inventing Tomorrow. The film, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and made its TV and streaming debut on PBS’s POV on July 29, follows high school students from around the world who are tackling the global climate crisis through science. The teenagers spearheaded innovative solutions to major environmental threats in their own backyards: air pollution in Monterrey, Mexico; ocean pollution caused by tin mining in Bangka, Indonesia; arsenic-contaminated soil caused by tsunamis in Hilo, Hawaii; and, in Pingali’s case, toxic lake water. Each of them then traveled to the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) 2017 in Los Angeles, where they defended their research for 1,000 expert judges.
There were once 1,000 manmade lakes in Bangalore, but most have been encroached on as a result of the city’s population growth. Now, Pingali tells MTV News, a place previously known as the “city of lakes” is home to just 93 — and most are severely polluted.
“There’s been some pretty dramatic events because of the extreme sewage conditions,” Pingali says, noting the “clouds of toxic foam” that float onto the streets are the result of a dangerous combination of sewage and chemical waste, and the lakes have actually caught on fire. As The Guardian reported, the thick layers of pollution on top of the water created the perfect environment for flammable methane to form below the surface. “It’s just really nasty,” Pingali adds.
She was inspired to take action after interviewing people who lived near one of the lakes during a school trip when she was 15 years old. “Being on the ground talking to people who lived right next to the lake and seeing how the water was really made me realize that, wow, there’s this foam, and the smell, and the weeds — but there’s also all these health effects that people are facing,” she says. “And people are using that water for agriculture to grow crops that could be sold anywhere and carry those health effects all over the state. It really struck me that this is a really big, complex and really bad problem that affected a lot of people.”
And it could get much worse. “Bangalore will be a dead city in another 25 years because of water alone,” Pingali said in Inventing Tomorrow, referencing expert predictions that the growing water crisis will make the city uninhabitable by 2025.
But she isn’t ready to give in to that fate; she realized while researching the issue that there’s a serious lack of available data on the pollution and the specific chemicals in the lake. So, she developed an at-home water testing kit and accompanying smart phone app that allows public citizens to crowdsource that data which can, in turn, lead to solutions.
The kit uses electronic sensors and chemical test strips to monitor water samples and send the data via bluetooth to a phone. The app serves as a crowdsourcing platform for water monitoring; through it, people can help create a water health map of the world, see data visualizations, and gain knowledge on water safety and changes over time. Not only does it make data accessible to everyone from public citizens to governments and nonprofits, but it also serves as a valuable tool for education and awareness.
“A lot of lakes in Bangalore are being revived right now, and most of that is happening through citizen action — through people who step up and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to adopt this lake next to our community and make sure it gets fixed,” Pingali says. “I wanted to make it possible for regular citizens, people who have an everyday stake in the health of the lake…to have an easy way to monitor the water that they live near and the water that they consume, and not have to rely on outsourcing to scientists or trying to dig through these complicated reports.”
In the United States, where the app is available via SciStarter.org, the goal is slightly different. Here, Pingali says, “a lot of people aren’t aware of issues because the issues are invisible. Unless you have the chemical composition of your water, you won’t know that there’s dangerous levels of certain contaminants there.” Although much of the U.S. can access a largely safe water supply, Pingali’s kit can help people identify where the water is coming from, as well as any contaminants that do exist, as well as generate a greater awareness around an important natural resource.
And so far, things are going well. During an initial beta test of the app in Bangalore, students tested water in 10 different lakes. Not only did they enjoy engaging with and learning about their local environments, they also helped gather information on some lakes that hadn’t previously been monitored at all. “Some of them were really happy that they were able to generate the only data in the whole city about a certain lake,” Pingali says.
The success continued when she competed in India’s IRIS National Science Fair, followed by ISEF. In the latter competition, Pingali earned a top award in the Earth and Environmental Sciences category. In the wake of that success, Pingali even had a planet in the Milky Way named after her, The Hindu reported. Now an undergraduate student at Stanford University, she’s still scaling her invention by inviting people to contribute to the crowdsourced water data by ordering a kit through SciStarter.org.
While she is proud of her accomplishments, she says making it to the national level in India wasn’t just about winning awards — it granted her access to training camps and mentorship with experts from around the country. Getting to the international competition opened up an even larger network, exposing her crowdsourcing-reliant kit to more crowds and helping her take it to the next level.
“For the rest of my time working on this project, I’ll always have that validation,” she says. “Yes, this is something that a 16-year-old girl made at home and at school; but I have gotten validation at these international levels from these qualified people. So that really gives me a boost in terms of getting more help and resources, and growing this into something bigger.”
According to Laura Nix, the director and producer of Inventing Tomorrow, “What these students are fighting for is so much more important than whether or not they win a prize at a science fair.” Instead, Nix’s goal with the documentary was to highlight environmental issues while leaving the “audience with a sense of hope and with a sense of agency.”
From what Pingali has seen so far, they’ve already achieved that goal. She says she’s encountered people who were motivated to learn about their local environments, engage with the science, and take action in their communities. She’s particularly moved when young students seem themselves reflected in the film and become inspired to get involved with science and solving issues they see.
And she believes her generation has a unique sense of purpose that comes from growing up with the climate crisis. “We’re forced to accept it in a way,” she tells MTV News. “For many people in the previous generation who didn’t have these problems for most of their lives, it’s easier for them to be in denial about the fact that they’re becoming so critical now; while for us, we’ve never known anything else. This is our reality, so it’s not something that’s as easy to deny.”