February 22, 2011 — For the past three years, University of Virginia students and researchers have worked to establish clean water and sanitation systems in Limpopo Province, South Africa through a trans-disciplinary collaboration known as Water and Health in Limpopo, or WHIL.
Organized by faculty from the University of Venda in Limpopo, the U.Va. Center for Global Health and School of Engineering and Applied Science, the project has drawn on the expertise of students and researchers from across the University, including those from the schools of Nursing, Medicine and Architecture, as well as the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Systems and Information Engineering.
The Piedmont Rotary Council, comprising the three Charlottesville-area Rotary Clubs – Albemarle, Blue Ridge and Charlottesville – is raising money for supplies needed to finish water treatment and distribution systems in the Limpopo villages of Tshapahsa and Tshibvumo. The council and the Engineering School will host a fundraising dinner, "Virginia to Africa: Water is Life," on March 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Farmington Country Club. For information about the dinner at Farmington, visit www.RotaryVirginiaToAfricaFundraiser.org.
Access to clean water is essential to the health of young children and of adults who have weak immune systems, such as those infected with HIV. These two populations are particularly susceptible to infections caused by water-borne pathogens.
"Germs carried in water sicken millions of children each year," said Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of the Center for Global Health. "Many die, and those who do not can suffer long-term consequences from repeated infections, including blunted physical and cognitive development. Developing effective, sustainable strategies to prevent the root cause of these infections, water contaminated with feces, is imperative and overdue."
Garrick Louis, a professor in U.Va.'s Department of Systems and Information Engineering, has been working with student and faculty researchers to design a water supply system that uses local resources and can be built by the community with support from faculty and students from the U.Va. and the University of Venda. The system is based on a slow-sand filter, which removes pathogens from the river water used by the villagers, then stores it in tanks where it is chlorinated before distribution to the villagers via standpipes.
A group of Louis' students recently earned a second $30,000 grant from the Jefferson Public Citizens program to support their work in the Limpopo region this summer. The students will finish building filtration and storage systems with the help of students and faculty from the University of Venda.
For U.Va. students, the project offers a real-world, international perspective on classroom lessons and a chance to work alongside peers from the University of Venda. Because U.S. students traditionally learn how to deal with water treatment and wastewater for systems located in the United States, taking these concepts to Africa challenges them to come up with creative solutions to location-specific problems.
"When the students begin their work in Limpopo, they realize that their designs have to change," Louis said. "By the time their work is complete, they are proud to see that their ideas have been built into something that greatly benefits a community."
While Louis' student teams are focusing on moving water from the river to the slow-sand filtration and storage system, another group is investigating the use of ceramic filters – essentially clay pots – to move the water from the system to residents' homes. These students and their mentors have also received support from the Jefferson Public Citizens program and a Deepening Global Education grant.
In 2009, Lydia Abebe, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, began researching the use of ceramic filters to improve water quality with a grant from the U.Va.-Pfizer Initiative in Global Health.
Initially, she worked with James Smith, a professor in the same department, and Dillingham to investigate the impact of the use of ceramic water filters on the health of individuals infected with HIV. Her project demonstrated a reduction of more than 75 percent in the number of days of diarrhea experienced by those participants who used the filters compared to those who did not.
Based on this success, the team investigated the feasibility of establishing a ceramic filter factory in Limpopo.
The filters – made from clay, water and a combustible material such as sawdust, rice husks or flour – are heated in a kiln to combust the organic material. The process creates tiny pores that allow water flow but trap bacteria and other pathogens. Additionally, a layer of colloidal silver coats the filter, lodges in the filter's pores and helps kill the bacteria and pathogens as they flow through.
In August, they identified a local potter and sources of raw materials such as clay. This summer, Abebe and Jefferson Public Citizen program-funded students will return to Limpopo to assess the most efficient kilns for the factory and to train other local potter–entrepreneurs who could establish additional factories.
Project leaders emphasize that since the project began, it has been essential to work with local residents, government and water authority representatives, as well as students and faculty at the University of Venda.
For example, the WHIL project sought community input from its start using an innovative qualitative research method, "Photovoice." In 2008, Tim Cunningham, then a U.Va. Nursing School master's student, led a Photovoice project in the partner communities. The project allowed community members to document their own perceptions of their water system through photography and this, in turn, engaged the community in developing and implementing solutions.
Throughout the projects' various phases, researchers and students from across the University have lent their expertise and efforts to the project. Gerard Learmonth, a professor of systems and information engineering, has led the development of an agent-based modeling tool that allows students and faculty researchers to assess the viability of a plethora of options for improving the water system and decreasing childhood diarrhea.
Karen Firehock and Nisha Botchwey, both faculty members in the Architecture School's Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, have been engaging the Limpopo community in health and hygiene programs to ensure that the clean water systems are used properly into the future.
The project is supported by the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center, U.Va. grants and private donors, including Linwood A. "Chip" Lacy Jr., who graduated from the Engineering School in 1967 and from the Darden School of Business in 1969.