The worldwide attention Phillip Thompson gains for his humanitarian engineering efforts speaks to his unending desire to find new solutions for the problems of water and sanitation in developing nations.
His creative problem solving drew notice from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Bullitt Foundation. Thompson, an SU faculty member since 1997, has served as a consultant to both and continues to receive numerous grants and awards from organizations such as Engineers Without Borders USA and the National Science Foundation.
Thompson’s goals at Seattle University and elsewhere are ambitious. His papers related to water, several of which outline a reasonable strategy for solving the safe water crisis, have been published in Environmental Science and Technology, Business and Society Review Water Environment Research and other journals. In addition to reviewing the technological solutions, he discusses how to build partnerships between medical clinics and local businesses, which can lead to reliable and safe water for the broader communities of developing countries. Thompson has completed water projects in Thailand, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Zambia. In January 2010, he received an e-mail from Wes Lauer, one of his civil and environmental engineering colleagues at SU, who was in Haiti working on a project when the devastating earthquake hit. While waiting for a flight out of Haiti, Lauer wanted to assist in the relief effort with a water filtration system for Port-au-Prince, the quake epicenter, so he contacted Thompson. Lauer and Thompson had installed a similar system in Thailand. Thompson knew what was needed, found all the parts locally, packed them in a Samsonite suitcase and shipped it to Haiti where his work continues today.
Thompson doesn’t mince words when he speaks of the necessity to fix problems with water and sanitation in Haiti, just 700 miles from the Florida shore. He estimates $50 million would provide safe water for all Haitians. However, he’s a realist who recognizes the many challenges and describes considerable chaos among the groups working for clean water—hundreds in Haiti alone—that aren’t coordinating their efforts.
In addition to his work on improving water quality, Thompson has an interest in decentralizing waste treatment in the developing world and in rural or even urban American settings. He’s also working with students to study wind energy, biogas from animal and food waste and solar projects for generating and storing energy.