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Safe drinking water: it’s a basic human right

Bringing safe drinking water to underprivileged people in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – that’s the aim of a joint academic project led […]

July 2, 2019

Bringing safe drinking water to underprivileged people in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – that’s the aim of a joint academic project led by Ulster University.

Involving two universities in South America, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) project is called Safewater, and the aim was to develop low cost technologies to provide safe drinking water.

Lead researcher, Professor of Photocatalysis Tony Byrne told me, “Having access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, recognised as such by the UN in 2010.”

However, Tony pointed out that the first requirement for water treatment is that it is effective and to achieve this requires technologies are proven to be effective.

He explained, “We’ve adopted known technologies and through engineering aim to drive the cost down. The provision of safe water costs money, so we need to identify how to deliver water to the communities in an affordable way.”

The project is developing innovations in two areas,

  1. Water treatment technologies and interventions
  2. IoT enabled devices that can detect faecal contamination in a water supply

The water quality device can offer a faster way to test water quality than the typical method of sending a sample to a lab. Tony explains, “We can take a water sample, put it in the device, and it communicates the results via a mobile signal – we can even read the results here in NI if we want to.”

That the device communicates its location and its analysis remotely is key, given that some of these communities of people are living a nine- or 10-hour drive from the nearest town.

How are we doing with regards to bringing safe water to more of the world’s population?

Prof Byrne said, “The last WHO / UNICEF joint monitoring report found that still two billion people around the world commonly drink water that isn’t safe to drink – that’s 1/4 of the world’s population.”

Is the end game to implement these technologies on a wide scale?

“Initially we are focusing on technologies that are already well known, but implementing that into households in rural Mexico or Colombia is quite challenging,” said Prof Byrne. “Ultimately we want to minimise user dependency — if it could operate in a household without human intervention, that would be the goal.”

“While people might only drink one or two litres per day, they use water for washing and food prep, so they actually need maybe 50 litres per person, per day. That presents a huge challenge where piped in supplies are not available nor safe.”

More information can be found about Safewater here.

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