Small Steps, Big Difference

Basic sanitation can improve water quality worldwide

Each day there are new issues and technical challenges that present themselves in our effort to deliver clean water and solve difficult environmental problems, whether it is water scarcity, emerging contaminants, water conservation, energy costs and many others too numerous to list. We all recognize that we have various technical and political challenges to overcome when doing our work, but we also have more resources, technology and know-how to deal with these problems than at any other time in human history.  

As we consider this “modern era” of water and wastewater treatment, however, it is important to remember that the availability of advanced treatment is a relatively recent phenomenon that has developed over only the past few decades and, unfortunately, includes less than half of the world’s population. This modern era exists in a few countries in the developed world, but it is not yet fully realized in the developing world. 

Unsafe water and poor sanitation will kill more young children this year than malaria, AIDS and accidents combined. Most of these deaths result from diarrheal disease, and 90% of these cases are in children under the age of five. Only about half of the world’s households have running water at home and nearly 3 billion people lack adequate sanitation.

There are many people and organizations doing good work to remedy this situation. For instance, I have worked for many years with Dr. Jamie Bartram, former coordinator of water, sanitation and health programs for the World Health Organization and current professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and director of its Water Institute. 

Sharing a Vision

The vision of the Water Institute is “to bring together individuals and institutions from diverse disciplines and sectors and empower them to work together to solve the most critical global issues in water and health.”

Bartram approached me years ago to brainstorm the mission of the institute when he first joined UNC. The need for action to improve the availability and adequacy of safe drinking water and sanitation is widely recognized. There is a severe lack of trained and educated individuals who know what to do and a lack of knowledge—and a means to disseminate that knowledge—about solutions that work in the developing world. Battling these sobering realities is the core mission of the Water Institute.  

Some solutions to water and sanitation issues with which we, in the developed world, are familiar typically are not suitable for use in the developing world. In many of these areas, there is little access to basics such as power or pressurized water, and often there is little expertise or equipment to maintain such systems. These difficult situations require unique and effective—yet simple—solutions.

“Three of the most critical gaps in responding to the water challenge are a real lack of trained professionals—especially those who understand how to operate in the developing world—a lack of critical knowledge regarding policy, management, practice and technology relevant to the developing world; and very limited opportunities to share the relevant and usable information needed by key decision-makers and service providers,” Bartram said. “This is the gap we are trying to close with the Water Institute.”

The Water Institute will be hosting its third-annual Water and Health Conference Oct. 29 to Nov. 2. I have attended this conference in the past and it certainly is an eye-opener to the basic water and sanitation issues facing the world. It provides a clear perspective of the contrasts between the daily work most of us do and the life-threatening issues faced by the rest of the world.   

Seeing Results

Skeptics might wonder, can an initiative like this really make a difference? It is worthwhile to consider, with the magnitude of the problem, what one university can really do. Bartram helped lend some perspective to that question.

 “Cholera and typhoid in this country were conquered by the introduction of basic sanitation measures,” he said. “This was not so long ago. When the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health introduced its sanitary engineering program early in the 1920s, few rural families had running water and fewer than 5% had toilet facilities. Cholera was still a recent memory, and pandemics had killed more than 200,000 Americans. Drinking water treatment was being introduced to U.S. cities and typhoid rates were plummeting in response. 

“The conditions in rural North Carolina at the time were not that dissimilar to those seen in developing nations today. The university played a key role in modernizing conditions then, and we can help to conquer waterborne disease again today using the same basic sanitation techniques. Only this time, we’ll do it better and faster, using modern education, communication and collaboration tools.” 

After witnessing the impressive turnout and enthusiasm of the Water Institute’s first two conferences, I think he may have a case. 

Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at bobferguson.wwdmag@gmail.com.

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