solving global water challenges

Water Engineering

Safe Water in Sub-Saharan Africa:
Illinois Students and Faculty Work Toward Novel Solutions

Each Spring semester, the students enrolled in CEE (Civil and Environmental Engineering) 449 at the University of Illinois set off on a field trip. You won’t find them heading to Springfield or Washington, but in an effort to find solutions to the developing world’s water and sanitation problems, they are heading halfway across the globe to East Africa.

Globally speaking, nearly 800 million people drink water that is likely contaminated. Of those, about 90 percent reside in rural areas and 43 percent on the continent of Africa. In addition, a whopping 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to improved sanitation. The class, under the umbrella of the Safe Global Water Institute (SGWI), has had the opportunity to travel to different rural communities in developing countries of East Africa to interact with the residents and learn about their specific needs related to safe water, health, sanitation, energy, and food security. Over the past three years, students have focused on solutions for Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.


Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at ILLINOIS
in partnership with the Safe Global Water Institute

SGWI is a focused consortium of global centers of excellence in research, education, and regional stakeholders working across the boundaries of Water and Sanitation with Health, Food, and Energy. It’s the goal of SGWI, which resides on the U of I campus under the leadership of CEE department head and professor Benito J. Mariñas, to use a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach to address the problem of safe water and sanitation in places where people don’t normally have access to solutions to these serious problems. The CEE 449 class gives undergraduate students an opportunity to influence the process.

Since 2008, over one hundred Illinois students have traveled abroad with our faculty to gain a firsthand understanding of the basic science, engineering solutions, educational capacity, and socio-economic barriers to providing sustainable safe water and sanitation to the people of East Africa and other parts of the developing world. Together, our student and faculty researchers are working to address the full spectrum of safe water and sanitation needs from advancing science and engineering in state-of-the-art facilities, to implementation of new solutions in target rural communities, and to increasing the global human capacity to ensure long-term sustainability of new technologies.

The UN Millennium Development Goal was to reduce by half the portion of people without access to “safe” water and improved sanitation by 2015. Currently, more than ten percent (~800 million people) of the world’s population still lacks access to “improved” water, many hundreds of millions more drink “unsafe” water from “improved” sources, and roughly 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. These are the very same people that are at the bottom of the global economy, people whose livelihood is frequently undercut with morbidity (4 billion annual episodes of diarrhea) and mortality (2 million annual deaths) from waterborne-related diseases.

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Water is central to the contributing factors of these deaths. Contamination of drinking water with pathogens, pesticides, toxins, and other caustic elements causes malnutrition of children; poor health care of pregnant mothers and neonates; co-infections with other bacteria or viruses that may increase severity of disease; and transmission of zoonotic infections from agricultural animals and wild animals. In addition, scarcity of water destabilizes the socio-economic stability of families and communities.

Compounding these challenges are the struggles of African universities to educate high quality students to address these problems because of factors such as insufficient funding, lack of highly qualified faculty, and retention of high quality students. Unresolved, these water, sanitation, and higher education problems negatively impact local and global economies and political stability.

While SGWI researchers continue to work on these projects year-round, around 15 students in the CEE 449 class are selected each year to join them in a at least one leg of the journey to East Africa. The undergrads learn about specific needs and divide into four groups with each group setting a goal to address one of them through a semester-long project with an eye on integrating all four projects.

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“One of the primary purposes is to expose students to the environment there,” said CEE graduate research assistant, Lauren Valentino. “They face an entirely new set of challenges such as economic feasibility, that are often not considered in your typical engineering courses. We’re looking at social and political factors that may influence the treatment technologies.”

The field trips incorporate on-site water quality analysis of the accessible sources to assess the presence of chemical and biological contaminants, assessment of current sanitation practices and energy resources available, as well as a cultural immersion to understand the communities’ priorities and needs. The students then work together to incorporate this information into technical design recommendations that address the specific challenges in the communities.

“One of the things that is really important is that students learn the design process,” noted graduate team member, Andrea Vozar. “That is one of the reasons the trip is so early in the semester. The traveling students will bring information to the home team here. They will define the project and the problem that they are going to resolve as a group.”

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The 2015 trip began in Kenya, which featured a tour of the Nakuru Defluoridation Center in the western city of Nakuru and some fieldwork and water sampling in Baringo County. The water in the region often has values high in fluoride, iron, and manganese, and the team is hoping to work with the company to address the fluoride issue in both Kenya and Uganda.

One key aspect of this ongoing effort focuses on developing a robust relationship with local organizations that take the lead on implementation actions. After meeting with members of the U.S. embassy and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Kenya and the U.S. Department of State in Uganda, the team set out for the southern Uganda region bordering Tanzania to connect with Peter Luswata, who runs the Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation and serves as SGWI’s contact in the country. Luswata has been responsible for working with local villages to implement SGWI recommendations.

solving global water challenges

Much of the fieldwork in Uganda centered on the Oruchinga Refugee Settlement, which sits in a valley south of Mbarara, a transportation hub of about 300,000 people. In addition to addressing the water quality, the SGWI team is working with the local people on turning human and animal waste into a resource through anaerobic digesters and making a plan for using renewable energy to transport water from the valley to local communities.

SGWI understands that oftentimes political and social factors are barriers to the implementation process. Luswata and sociologists are keys in moving the projects forward.

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“Treating the water quality or the sanitation needs in some of these communities are not necessarily their top priorities,” said Valentino. “We value our collaboration with Peter because he really understands the importance of combining entrepreneurial activities with other solutions.”

While the refugees have access to water from boreholes and the river, the people, often children, need to travel up the hill, about a five to seven hour journey round trip by foot, for energy sources such as coal and firewood. Meanwhile, residents of the hilltop villages have the same journey down the hill to get water. Long lines often mean completing the journey after dark where violent attacks and rape are commonplace.

A potential solution would be to use an aquifer or borehole and pump the water up the hill. The team left behind a weather station to measure solar and wind energy, potential future energy sources.

“Those in the hilltop villages are collecting two 20-liter jerry cans each day for a family of seven to 14 people,” said Vozar. “Going into the project, we thought the issue was just going to be providing safe water, but really we needed to start talking about water access first. Energy is a good way to start doing that.”

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The mindset for sanitation in these areas is often to simply get rid of the waste. That process in itself can be a challenge when, for instance, a limited number of toilets service the around 40,000 people who come to market there each week. SGWI is working on developing a centralized treatment center, making it into a business model where it can turn waste into a resource such as for fertilizing fields.

Mariñas and SGWI (formerly WaterCAMPWS, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center) have developed a global consortium of partners and researchers, educational institutions, local stakeholders, governmental officials, municipalities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in East African countries to develop solutions. They have also mobilized key people at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Makerere University in Uganda, and others on the U of I campus (Molecular and Cellular Biology Professor Joanna Shisler, CEE Professor Jeremy Guest, Business Administration Professor Madhu Viswanathan, and Chemistry Professor Yi Lu) who offer expertise in microbiology, engineering, business, chemistry, and sociology to help with the effort.

“We find it so important to develop the relationships with these universities,” said Valentino. “We realize we are there at most two to three weeks out of the entire year. Maintaining these relationships helps us collect data year round and further develop our solutions in water treatment technologies.”

solving global water challenges

“One of our primary roles is capacity building and information sharing,” reiterated Vozar. “Our goal is to provide our partners with the tools and the knowledge so that they can make educated decisions and empower them to take action to address the water and sanitation problems.”

“We are working with local entrepreneurs to develop some economic incentives for residents to address these problems,” added fellow graduate assistant Bernardo Vazquez Bravo.

While the initial focus of the institute was on providing safe water, last year they added a focus on sanitation and this year renewable energy, which has helped expand the involvement to professors in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. For instance, in striving to use the energies available (directly or converting to electricity), MechSE professors Leonardo Chamorro and Elif Ertekin have lectured on their expertise in wind and solar energies, respectively.

The additional emphases also align with the worlds’ Grand Challenges of Engineering as articulated by the National Academy of Engineering.

solving global water challenges