Worldwide, more than one billion people lack access to an improved water source, such as a rainwater collection or dug well, and two billion still need access to basic sanitation facilities, such as a latrine.
By 2015, the international community hopes to reduce by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.
This target for sustainable water and sanitation is just one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals adopted in September 2000 at the Millennium Summit. These goals serve as the world's time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty.
Local communities in the developing world and professional researchers are working to meet this goal. Researchers recently presented their work toward this end at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
In the developed world, the moment a drop of water hits the ground, it goes into the water system until it becomes wastewater. Then it's treated and put it back into the system.
"We have a large-scale infrastructure in the United States to provide clean water," said Joseph Hughes, chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "Using our current approach will not provide the rapid fix the United Nations is looking for in developing countries. It would take decades."
Hughes outlined four steps in solving the developing world's water and sanitation problems. First, researchers must determine how big the problem is, then analyze the dynamics of water distribution, understand the complexity of the systems required and, finally, create new approaches to water supply and sanitation through research and development. This includes new methods of storing, treating and disinfecting water and developing sanitation systems that minimize pathogen release.
Urbanization, climate changes, water scarcity and economic development will affect where water will be available in the future and where concentrated amounts of water will be required to meet the needs of large populations, Hughes says. The United Nations projects that two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas that face water scarcity by 2025.
"Historically we've tried to go to groundwater sources, such as a well, to initiate improved water sources, but there's a very finite capacity in groundwater," Hughes noted. "We have to work much harder to make ocean or surface waters safe."
The water must be safe and reliable in quality and quantity.
"We need to go beyond providing better water," Hughes added. "We need to provide water that you and I would drink and consider safe. If a pregnant woman drank it, she wouldn't be worried about her health or the baby's health."
International research has been under way for some time to help improve the water supply and sanitation in developing countries. Georgia Tech Professor of Public Policy Susan Cozzens is leading new research, funded by the National Science Foundation, to determine whether these efforts have been effective.
In the United States, the only thing consumers need to know about their water supply is how to pay their bill and call a plumber if there's a leak, said Cozzens, who organized the AAAS session on water and sanitation in developing countries. But a family in a developing country with a latrine needs to know a tremendous amount – how to build the latrine and how to maintain it.
"If a part breaks, what does that family do? Does the family stay in touch with the organization that came and provided the service or part originally? Is there someone who assumes the role of civil engineer in every town?" asked Cozzens, who is also director of the Georgia Tech Technology Policy and Assessment Center.
Cozzens also plans to investigate how communities in developing countries share their knowledge. She will conduct case studies in urban and rural locations in four countries-- Mozambique, South Africa, Costa Rica and Brazil -- to answer these questions.
Cozzens' interest lies in how different places are addressing a lack of safe water and sanitation, and whether engineering, health and social science research plays any role in that.
"There's a research front out there, but we still need to think innovatively about problems with water supply and sanitation in developing countries," Cozzens said. "Even though there's only a little bit of social science (research) literature on water supply and sanitation, about half of it is about developing countries."
Cozzens' goal is to provide insight to international and local water authorities in developing countries on how to set the right conditions for people to learn and solve the problems of unsafe water and sanitation. This insight will come from studying the limitations of research knowledge in relation to this problem and studying communities in the developing world that have solved the problem, she added.
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