Georgia Tech Studies to Assess World Water, Sanitation Needs

Researchers outline plans to address needs of developing countries to meet international goals.

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Researchers outline plans to address needs of developing countries to meet international goals.

Globally, over a billion people lack access to an improved water source, such as rainwater collection or a dug well, and two billion still need access to basic sanitation facilities, such as a latrine. By 2015, the international community hopes to half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This target is just one of the UN Millennium Development Goals adopted in September 2000. They are the world’s time-bound, quantified targets to address extreme poverty.

Local communities in the developing world and professional researchers are working to meet this goal. In February, researchers presented their work toward this end in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which included a Climate-Change Town Hall to discuss related issues.

Infrastructure contrasts

In much of the developed world, when a drop of water hits the ground, it goes into the water system until it becomes wastewater. Then it’s treated and put back into the system.

“In the U.S., we have a large-scale infrastructure to provide clean water,” said Joseph Hughes, chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Civil & Environmental Engineering. “Using our current approach will not provide the rapid fix the United Nations is looking for in developing countries. It would take decades.”

Hughes outlined four steps in solving the developing world’s water and sanitation problems. First, researchers must determine how big the problem is, then analyze water distribution dynamics, understand the complexity of systems required and, finally, create new approaches through research and development toward solutions suited to local needs and that aid in growing local capabilities. This includes new methods of storing, treating and disinfecting water and developing sanitation systems that minimize pathogen release.

More than better water

Urbanization, climate changes, water scarcity and economic development will affect where water will be available in the future and where concentrated amounts of water will be required to meet the needs of large populations, Hughes says. The UN projects that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas that face water scarcity.

“Historically we’ve tried to go to groundwater sources, such as a well, to initiate improved water sources, but there’s a very finite capacity in groundwater,” Hughes noted. “We have to work much harder to make ocean or surface waters safe.”

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This Nigerian woman is gathering drinking water from a local pond. But a Guinea worm larvae infestation necessitates that this water be filtered to remove the water fleas that carry the parasitic larvae of the worm..
Click here to enlarge image

The water must be safe and reliable in quality and quantity. “We need to go beyond providing better water,” Hughes added. “We need to provide water that you and I would drink and consider safe. If a pregnant woman drank it, she wouldn’t be worried about her health or the baby’s health.”

Determining efficacy

International research has been under way for some time to help improve the water supply and sanitation in developing countries. Georgia Tech Professor of Public Policy Susan Cozzens is leading new research, funded by the National Science Foundation, to determine whether these efforts have been effective.

In the U.S., Europe and many urbanized areas, the only thing consumers need to know about their water supply often is how to pay the bill and call a plumber if there’s a leak, said Cozzens, who organized the AAAS session on water and sanitation in developing countries. But a developing country family with a latrine needs to know much more - how to build the latrine and maintain it.

“If a part breaks, what does that family do? Does it stay in touch with the organization that came and provided the service or part originally? Is there someone who assumes the role of civil engineer in every town?” asked Cozzens, also director of the institute’s Technology Policy & Assessment Center.

Cozzens also is investigating how communities in developing countries share their knowledge. She will conduct case studies in urban and rural locations in four countries - Mozambique, South Africa, Costa Rica and Brazil - to answer these questions.

Different solutions

Cozzens’ interest lies in how different places are addressing a lack of safe water and sanitation, and whether engineering, health and social science research plays any role in that.

“There’s a research front out there, but we still need to think innovatively about problems with water supply and sanitation in these areas,” Cozzens said. “Even though there’s only a little bit of social science literature on water supply and sanitation, about half is about developing countries.”

Cozzens’ goal is to provide insight to international and local water authorities in developing countries on how to set the right conditions for people to learn and solve problems of unsafe water and sanitation. This insight comes from studying limitations of research knowledge in relation to the problems and seeing how developing communities solved them, she added.

Author’s Note:

Freelance author Abby Vogel wrote this article, which appeared in the Winter/Spring issue of Research Horizons, a magazine published by the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology.


Developing Countries: Five Questions for Prof. Cozzens

WWI: What happened at the AAAS Water & Sanitation Meeting in San Francisco in February?

Cozzens: The room was packed, with audience disciplines stretching from engineers to environmental scientists and coastal researchers. Ede Ijjasz, World Bank Water Supply & Sanitation (WSS) Program director, gave an overview of sector issues, mentioning innovative approaches like stimulating formation of small firms in rural areas to provide WSS services. Stanford University’s Jennifer Davis addressed whether the Millennium Development Goals for WSS would be met, presenting preliminary findings on her analysis of which countries were doing well on the targets and which lagged. Money isn’t the main factor in success, as there’s a great deal of variation, and lower-to-middle income countries often make more progress than more prosperous neighbors. Georgia Tech’s Joseph Hughes presented a systems view of water resource management and outlined challenges his group faces in designing appropriate systems for urban slums and rural areas in Angola. I presented maps of research literature on water supply and sanitation in engineering, public health and social sciences. The engineering research community in affluent countries is much less connected to water supply and sanitation issues in developing countries than either of the other communities, but there’s an active network of engineering research institutions in developing countries themselves addressing the challenges.

WWI: How does water well development factor into your research (as it’s a theme of this issue)?

Cozzens: Wells are often seen in developing countries as the first step toward clean water when local surface water sources become polluted. For example, the state of Kerala in India has 4.8 million wells - one for about every 6 people in the state. Village water systems begin with wells, which are maintained by community-based organizations after they’re installed. But over-dependence on well water can deplete groundwater sources, and in crowded urban slums, where latrines may contribute to groundwater contamination, making even well water unsafe.

WWI: What five things are being done correctly today?

Cozzens: The innovative programs in water supply and sanitation today are facilitating community activation to address the issues, for example, by leading communities in research on their own sanitary conditions. They’re encouraging small businesses to provide water and sanitation services at affordable rates for rural areas and poor neighborhoods in cities. Engineers have developed simplified sanitation systems that match the conditions of existing urban settlements better than Northern models of pre-installed infrastructure. Active networks are exchanging information internationally. Donorsare working together in particular countries and providing resources for national governments to organize their own programs.

WWI: What five things need to change?

Cozzens: Research capacity of developing countries needs to be spread more broadly, so every country has the technical capacity to support systems incorporating the best ideas developed globally. Regulatory agencies also need to increase technical capacity to evaluate innovative solutions that may be locally appropriate and not just blindly apply standards developed in the North. We need experimentation with different approaches, including in public health education, and evaluation of which programs produce sustained results and which don’t. We need better financing mechanisms for sustainable public WSS systems. We need to resolve land ownership issues often standing in the way of low-cost solutions in peri-urban areas.

WWI: How does climate change factor into all of this?

Cozzens: Climate change is redistributing rainfall among communities. This will make scarcity of water an issue in some places where it isn’t an issue now. It’s likely to make life even more precarious for many of the poorest agricultural communities in the developing world - places already hard pressed to invest in solutions to their water supply and sanitation problems.

Featured in the Contents page photo, Georgia Tech public policy professor Susan Cozzens tours Rio de Janeiro’s Guandu Water Treatment Plant during research on water and sanitation in developing countries.

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