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The community on Vanuatu

Working with communities to develop water monitoring technology

Given the importance of water to our health, it is clearly important that we regularly drink water and keep our bodies hydrated. Around 70% of the global population use a drinking-water service that is located on their premises, available when needed and free from contamination. For these people, keeping hydrated is easy and safe. However, for the remainder of the world’s population, equivalent to around 2 billion people, accessing uncontaminated water can be difficult.

Global background

Water contamination can come in a number of forms, including hazardous chemicals and microorganisms. Contamination of drinking water supplies by microorganisms is a particular challenge across the globe and is the leading risk factor for childhood diarrhoea. This raises a question; how do these disease-causing microorganisms enter the drinking water?

Ongoing project in Vanuatu

Researchers are working with residents on the remote South Pacific islands of Vanuatu to co-develop technology which will warn them when water supplies are unsafe to drink.

The issue

As we discovered in step 2.5 diarrhoeal diseases result in approximately 1.8 million deaths worldwide every year. In many cases this is due to a lack of access to clean water.

Our research project with the communities of Vanuatu investigates how we can use sensor technology that enables communities to better assess, preserve and manage their water supply. But how do we build a technology that is accurate, sensitive and specific enough to detect water contamination? And how do we ensure that it is also engineered to meet a community’s needs, skills and environment?

The research

This project, supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), embeds communities in the technology innovation process in order to design technologies for testing water quality that are appropriate, equitable and sustainable. To achieve this goal we have established a close partnership between communities in Vanuatu and a multi-disciplinary team of York academics, led by Dr Steven Johnson of the Department of Electronic Engineering. In addition to developing an appropriate technology for ensuring water safety, we will also deliver a generic process for participatory technology development that will ensure science and engineering works effectively for the poor and marginalised.

The outcome

We have already run a series of workshops with four communities across Vanuatu led by colleagues in the Stockholm Environment Institute at York and Oxfam. They aimed to embed community members in the process of technology innovation. Critically, the workshops provided an opportunity for community members to use their local expertise and knowledge to co-design a water monitoring technology that is sustainable and meets the needs and skills of the community. We have now constructed a prototype water sensor that is designed according to the communities’ specifications.

This prototype is currently undergoing testing in our laboratories at York, and we will return to Vanuatu early in 2020, to deliver the technology for extended testing within our four partner communities.

It is our hope that ultimately, this water quality monitoring technology will allow the people of Vanuatu to better manage their drinking water supplies and ensure safe drinking water for all.

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