University-wide Effort Works to Provide South African Community with Clean Water

June 29, 2010 — University of Virginia students and faculty members are taking significant steps toward improving water and sanitation facilities in developing nations. This summer, U.Va. students from various academic disciplines are traveling to South Africa's Limpopo province to address the region's issues of water quality and availability.

 The students are part of the Jefferson Public Citizens program, which supports them in experiences that integrate service and research.

The first group will address whether it would be economically feasible to build a ceramic water filter factory in Limpopo. Produced and used in many other resource-limited settings, the ceramic filters are made from clay, water and a combustible material additive such as sawdust, rice husks or flour. The mixture is heated in a kiln to combust the organic material, creating tiny pores that allow water flow, but trap bacteria and other pathogens.

The first group of students will evaluate whether it would be a good business proposition to build a filter factory in Limpopo. They will assess the current quality of water in homes, determine whether community members would be interested in buying the filters and locate the proper clay that could be used to make the filters.

"The filter factories established in Third World locations have not always been successful," said James Smith, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an academic adviser for the study. "This summer, these students will actively investigate what parameters are most important in defining the success of a ceramic filter factory and then assess whether the Limpopo community would respond positively to the establishment of a filter factory."

Additionally, Smith is involved in a study being conducted in Limpopo that is attempting to evaluate the impact that the filter has on human health. Limpopo is a community that is especially relevant because there is a large population of people infected with HIV. Since patients who are HIV-positive have a weakened immune system, they are particularly susceptible to secondary infections caused by water-borne pathogens such as cryptosporidium, giardia and pathogenic strains of E. coli.

"The research being conducted on the filter's ability to improve the health of HIV-positive patients is a part of a collaborative research effort to improve the quality of water in Limpopo," said Lydia Abebe, a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who will supervise the research in Limpopo this summer. "The results of this study will serve as the foundation for the ceramic filter economic feasibility study."

The second Jefferson Public Citizens group is planning to increase the quantity of water available to Limpopo communities. This group – which includes four systems engineering students who researched various methods for increasing the quantity of water in developing countries as a part of their senior capstone project – plans to install a slow sand filter for the community's use.

"After researching many options to increase the water supply, we are very optimistic about how the slow sand filter will serve the community in Limpopo," said Chris Gezon, a systems engineering graduate student. "What we really want to emphasize to the community during our visit this summer is the importance of taking the proper measures to ensure the sustainability of the filter. We hope that educating the community on the operation and maintenance of the filter will help the filter effectively provide increasing amounts of water to members of the Limpopo community."

Such visionary water and sanitation improvement plans are made possible though U.Va.'s strong relationship with the University of Venda in South Africa. This essential partnership is characterized by faculty and students from both universities working together to promote academics, research and community service, both in South Africa and the United States. The University of Venda is responsible for monitoring U.Va.-sponsored research projects in South Africa, linking U.Va. to the South African government, industry, nongovernmental organizations and local communities.

"The partnership between U.Va. and the University of Venda is critical to all of the research happening in Limpopo," said Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Infectious Disease Department. "We are continually working with University of Venda faculty and students on defining a common set of priorities to address the concerns of water quantity and quality in South Africa."

Also key to the success of the Limpopo province model is a mutual understanding of the cultural and institutional factors that promote the kind of development that both universities value. All of the research projects that are happening in Limpopo take considerable measures to keep the community informed and cater to their specific concerns about water, sanitation and health.

"Since many of the projects in Limpopo are community-based service learning projects, we want to ensure that the community is the priority," Dillingham said. "We are not interested in parachuting into the community and blindly implementing change. Ultimately, engaging the community from the beginning and maintaining a strong avenue of communication will enhance the collaborative effort to improve the quality and quantity of water available in South Africa."

— By Kathryn Welsh