Safewater project featured in Times Education Supplement:

28th February 2019

Ulster University’s Safewater project: research with global impact

The transdisciplinary collaboration addresses the challenge of creating safe drinking water for all

It is nine years since the UN declared that access to clean water is a human right, but there are still more than 1.8 billion people globally who drink a contaminated version of it. Furthermore, by 2025 half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas.

It is this chasm between rights and reality that the researchers at Safewater – a transdisciplinary centre tackling issues caused by water contamination, led by Ulster University – want to correct.

John Anthony Byrne, a professor of photocatalysis in Ulster’s School of Engineering, leads a £6m research project part-funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund to develop sustainable, low-cost technologies to supply clean water to rural communities in Colombia and Mexico.

Safewater hopes to improve the health of those communities by aiming to deliver 250 litres of clean water to each household daily. Nearly 1,000 children die each day because of preventable water and sanitation-related diseases, so the team will measure health outcomes primarily among children under five that include growth, weight and incidence of diseases such as diarrhoea to evaluate the project’s success.

Traditional water treatment methods cannot decontaminate the volume of water that is needed without a large, expensive infrastructure. “If you don’t provide enough portable water for cooking and cleaning and drinking then people start to take water from different [and potentially unclean] sources, which defeats the purpose of the exercise,” says Byrne.

Among Safewater’s objectives is the development of a high-volume filtration system that does not depend on users to work effectively – something as simple as turning on a tap. Byrne points out that in the UK people usually do not know how their water is treated, “so why should we expect people with many more problems than just water to understand – and to engage in an intervention that requires them to carry out many steps to get safe water?”

His team is comprised of academics from Ulster University, the University of Medellin in Colombia and the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, from diverse disciplines such as health and nutrition, behavioural psychology, microbiology, engineering, chemistry and business. The team will develop decontamination technologies that, if proven to be effective, could be replicated in other low- and middle-income countries – along with behavioural approaches to ensure that they are adopted successfully.

The group also includes non-governmental organisations – CTA in Colombia and Fundacion Cantaro Azul in Mexico – that have experience of working with the local communities on issues such as clean water. “Engaging with the rural population in Colombia and Mexico is not easy,” says Byrne. “You can’t just walk into these communities. You have to build trust.”

Safewater is also developing electronic devices to test for water contamination outside of a microbiology lab. Existing mobile testing kits can take up to 24 hours to process samples and usually require some technical training to use.

The devices will send data from water samples via mobile networks to a remote lab for remote monitoring. A green or red light will indicate whether the water is contaminated. “This is really exciting, because if you can do it at low cost and without any technical expertise required, an individual can rapidly tell if a source is safe to drink or not,” says Byrne.

If the systems that Safewater has developed improve the health of rural communities and are still being used after the project, Byrne says that he will consider it a success. With academics from Ulster’s business school modelling ways to ensure the project’s longevity, he hopes that it could benefit communities economically, too.

All of this is possible because the project was designed across disciplinary and geographical divides, he explains. “It’s looking at this together from the start, rather than a lot of people working in individual disciplines, [which would lead] to a solution that is not accepted by the communities. We have to consider what the community needs from the outset. That is the basis of transdisciplinary research.”