Inexpensive, Effective Water Quality Test Could Help Communities in Developing Nations

An estimated 3 billion or more cases worldwide of waterborne disease are caused by unsafe water supplies annually. Scientists at an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) workshop presented the prototype of an inexpensive, easy-to-use water-quality diagnostic that allows communities in the developing world to monitor microbial contamination in their drinking water.

The diagnostic, being developed as part of the joint U.S.-EU initiative AQUATEST, will cost less than 10 cents (U.S. currency) and will estimate levels of E. coli, bacteria that indicate contamination with human and animal waste and the possible presence of harmful pathogens.

"In previous decades, there has been a greater emphasis on providing people in developing nations with reliable access to water than on the improving water quality," said Ranjiv Khush, principal at the Aquaya Institute, a partner in the AQUATEST initiative. "In recent years, epidemiological studies of simple, household-level water treatment measures have demonstrated that improving water quality, independent of increasing water supplies, also provides significant health benefits. Good, readily available water quality diagnostics are crucial for determining where to focus efforts on improving water quality."

The AQUATEST project, which brought together organizations including the World Health Organization, Oxfam GB and the University of Bristol, was presented at a Jan. 5 workshop hosted by Office of International Initiatives and the Center for Science and Innovation for Sustainable Development at AAAS to engage scientists and policy officials.

Late last year, members of the AQUATEST team began traveling to countries around the world to conduct workshops and seek feedback on the prototype.

"With a goal of holding workshops every six months, we try to engage both policy officials, researchers and field implementers at these events," said Khush, a former AAAS S&T policy fellow. "We want feedback from all perspectives -- political, scientific and field-based."

AQUATEST is funded under EU's Sixth Framework Programme to meet the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal of halving the current number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015.

Experts estimate that diarrheal diseases cause at least 2 million deaths per year, mostly in children and infants. Many of those who become sick do not have access to clean drinking water.

"Around 200 people per hour die from unsafe drinking water ... it's clearly a humanitarian issue and an issue of human dignity," said Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer of AAAS and moderator of the workshop. "Science and technology can now be harnessed to make sustainable improvements to human rights around the world."

While it is still under development, the first-generation AQUATEST device will be a simple, culture-based system that will allow untrained users to estimate levels of E. coli contamination in their water without any requirement for laboratory or technical facilities.

For additional information, contact AAAS at http://www.aaas.org.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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