News Release

Women could play key role in correcting crisis in clean drinking water and sanitation crisis

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Chemical Society

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20, 2012 — People in ancient Rome 2,000 years ago had better access to clean water and sanitation that keeps disease-causing human excrement out of contact with people than many residents of the 21st century, a scientist said here today.

Women in developing countries could play a major role in remedying the situation, if given the chance, she added. Jeanette A. Brown, Ph.D., spoke on the global crisis in availability of clean water and basic sanitation like toilets and sewage disposal at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society. It was part of a symposium, "International Sustainable Development: Institutional Frameworks." Abstracts of other presentations appear below.

The ACS meeting continues here through Thursday in the Pennsylvania Convention Center and downtown hotels. It features 8,600 presentations on new advances in science and other topics, and ACS expects an anticipated attendance of 14,000 scientists and others.

"It's a sad fact that much of the world's population in 2012 has less access to clean water and the most basic sanitation than people living in ancient Rome," said Brown. "About 2.6 billion people – almost 1 in 3 people in the world ― lack access to even a simple 'improved' latrine, or pit toilet. More people have access to a cell phone today than to a toilet."

Brown said the lack of sanitation and clean water, especially in developing countries of sub-Sahara Africa and south Asia, claims an enormous toll in preventable illness, death and human suffering every year. She is with the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and is immediate past president of the Water Environment Federation, an international organization of water quality professionals headquartered in Alexandria, Va. Estimates indicate, for instance, that it sickens hundreds of millions of people every year, causing 1.6 million deaths from cholera and other diarrheal diseases transmitted by fecal contamination of drinking water.

The problem goes beyond the impoverished conditions that prevail in developing countries, Brown said. She explained that "archaic" cultural practices and attitudes toward women sometimes hinder progress in developing safe drinking water and basic sanitation in villages and towns in these developing nations.

For instance, Brown explained that men have higher status in these villages, and defecate and urinate openly whenever and wherever they choose. Women and girls, however, may be forbidden to defecate until after dark, and have to walk long distances from the village to do so. Even when villages have primitive toilets, women fear using them because of the risk of being raped. Women and girls likewise bear the burden of obtaining clean water from wells, often having to walk several miles roundtrip each morning carrying jugs that can weigh up to 80 pounds.

Water-bearing, Brown said, is a major reason why girls drop out of school, being unable to attend classes because of time or fatigue. Schools without toilet facilities also limit education of girls when menstruation begins.

Ironically, however, women often are not permitted to participate in developing and sustaining water and sanitation projects that could ease those burdens.

"Women are more likely to commit to projects since they see the value for their children and the community at large," said Brown. "A study by the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) of community water and sanitation projects in 88 communities found that projects designed and run with the full participation of women are more sustainable and effective than those that do not."

However, she said that women often do not have the opportunity to work on such projects because they lack education, or local cultural rules prevent education for women and even prohibit their using local toilet facilities.

Despite the barriers, she said that there are a number of organizations working to bring better sanitation and clean drinking water to developing nations. Among these are Water for People, Wine to Water, Engineers without Borders and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the United Nations. The groups have developed some ways of bringing revenue to the villages, like teaching residents to construct composting toilets so that the material can then be sold and also used in their farm fields as fertilizers. In addition, engineers work on these clean water and sanitation projects and teach people how to lay pipe, how to put in wells and how to maintain the pumps so they work continually.


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Here are abstracts of other presentations in the symposium on "International Sustainable Development: Institutional Frameworks:"

Doing science with Africa: Partnership opportunities with the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE)

Arlen K. Hatings, Lori Mulcare , Science Initiative Group, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, United States

RISE ( supports PhD and MSc-level scientists and engineers in sub-Saharan Africa through problem-focused, multi-disciplinary, university-based research and training networks. While RISE activities have been limited so far to African participants in Africa, the initiative will be expanding to include reciprocal research and teaching visits by African and U.S. graduate students, researchers and professors, ideally forming the basis for ongoing international collaborations. This talk will describe the five RISE networks, with an emphasis on those that involve chemistry, and will discuss plans for involving U.S. researchers and institutions.

Coffee for Justice: International collaborations in Nicaragua for chemistry in service to small-holder coffee producers

Susan C. Jackels1,, Charles F. Jackels2. (1) Chemistry Department, Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122, United States, (2) Science and Technology and Computing and Software Systems Departments, University of Washington Bothell, Bothell, WA 98011, United States

The Coffee for Justice Project goal is to put chemistry in service to coffee producers of developing countries through research and appropriate technology methods to assist in their production of specialty market quality coffee. This presentation will include the coffee production process, the scientific investigation that led to the design of a kit for optimization of coffee fermentation, the experiences of four coffee harvest seasons implementing the kit and method with over one hundred Nicaraguan coffee farmers, building a coffee processing mill with waste water treatment designed by engineering students, and experiences with farmers and families in transition to organic and Fair Trade coffee production. The Coffee for Justice Project is possible through the support of the National Science Foundation, the Seattle University Endowed Mission Fund, the SU International Development Internship Program, the University of Central America Managua, Catholic Relief Services Nicaragua, Winds of Peace Foundation, and Engineers Without Borders.

US-China ecopartnerships and their role in promoting environmental sustainability

Timothy Filley,, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, United States

The economies of the US and China are globally dominant drivers of fossil fuel consumption and the release of greenhouse gases and are thus directly linked to the challenges of global climate change and sustainable development. Innovative and transformational science, engineering, and technology solutions will require collaboration between the public and private sector, and mutually beneficial policies and incentives tailored to the needs of both nations. The US-China Ecopartnership for Environmental Sustainability (EPES) was established within the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue to promote collaboration to address these interconnected issues. By leveraging, enhancing, and promoting academic-industry research, education, and technology transfer/commercialization the EPES will help address these global challenges. This presentation will introduce the Ecopartnership network and provide an overview of the developing strategies and recommendations for solutions-oriented progress in the area of environmental sustainability promoted by the EPES.

Sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing in sub-Saharan Africa

Joseph M Fortunak,, Departments of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Howard University, Washington, DC 20059, United States

Sustainable, global access to high-quality medicines is a significant issue. Recent estimates conclude that the richest 15% of the world's population consumes roughly 90% of all medicines. Our research group at Howard University discovers new, green processes for the production of essential medicines. We collaborate to train pharmaceutical companies, drug regulators, and academics in sub-Saharan Africa in current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP), Green Chemistry, Industrial Pharmacy, and Quality-Assured drug production and regulation. By doing so we enable 1) a reduction in counterfeit and substandard medicines; 2) increased access to medicines of assured quality; and 3) national and regional independence in drug production - to break the cycle of dependency for access to medicines in Low-Income Countries. Novel chemistry for the environmentally benign production of essential medicines will be presented, as well as a summary of progress towards enabling the independent production and regulation of quality-assured medicines in sub-Saharan Africa.

Institutional framework for identifying issues and responses for ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation

Jeanette A Brown,, Department of Chemical, Materials and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, United States

Water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. Over 3.6 million people die each year from water borne diseases. The lack of clean water and sanitation are major issues in developing. It is sad to note that Ancient Romans had better access to clean water and sanitation than many people today. Over 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, defined as a sanitation facility that ensures hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact; almost 1.2 billion people who have no facilities at all. More people in the world have access to cell phones than access to a toilet. Diarrhea remains the second leading cause of death among children under five globally. About 1.5 million children die each year due to diarrhea. Diarrheal diseases kill more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Providing safe water could reduce incidence of diarrheal disease by an estimated 21% while improved sanitation could reduce diarrheal disease by 37.5%. Sadly, in most cases it is institutional barriers, such as lack of education archaic cultural practices and politics, that prevent developing safe drinking water and good sanitation practices. These statistics can be changing institutional framework and by educating and empowering women.

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