By Daniel Ma, The Ohio State University; Dana Pousty, Tel Aviv University; Nathan Moore, University of Toronto; and Prof. Hadas Mamane, Tel Aviv University
Sustainable and gender-equitable access to clean water remains a challenge for rural communities. Despite efforts to improve household water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices, some communities in low- and middle-income countries continue to face societal and technological obstacles in fulfilling their water needs. To address this issue, the IUVA United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Task Force was established in 2021, with the aim of understanding and supporting the use of UV technology to improve public health in developing settings.
In collaboration with the International Water Association (IWA), the Task Force held a webinar on January 31, 2023, to discuss the important topic of “Small Water Disinfection Systems: UV Light and the Role of Women in Remote Communities.” The webinar was moderated by Dana Pousty and Prof. Hadas Mamane from Tel Aviv University, and Rachel Gehr from Purdue University. The webinar featured three experts in the fields of women empowerment and equality, community engagement, WASH and UV technology: Dr. Bhavani Rao (Amrita University, India), Dr. Natalie Hull (The Ohio State University, United States) and Ane Galdos (Cántaro Azul, Mexico). Overall, the webinar was a great success and attended by hundreds of participants from all over the world. The webinar demonstrated the connections between SDG 6 Target 6.2, SDG 5 and SDG 10, which involve improving access to equitable sanitation and hygiene for women and girls to reduce gender inequalities in access to clean water and sanitation.
Empowering women: The keepers of their communities
Dr. Bhavani Rao discussed the importance of women in remote communities and their population and community roles (children, elderly, environment, water resources). Dr. Rao is the Dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, and she has been designated as India’s UNESCO Chair in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment since 2016.
India faces a dire water crisis. Currently, 75% of households do not have drinking water on the premises and 84% of rural households do not have access to piped water. Lack of water connections and toilets leads to waterborne illnesses, stunting of growth and death. An estimated 91 million Indians lack access to safe water.
Women were highlighted for their critical role in managing household water supplies in countries such as India and Mexico. As Dr. Rao asserted, women are “keepers of their communities,” often serving as the primary caretakers of children, elderly, water resources and the environment. Notably, women often are responsible for water-fetching, a time-consuming and physically intensive task.
Fetching water affects women’s health, workloads, caloric expenditure and results in Time Poverty, which translates to limited opportunities for education and personal livelihoods. Poor access to sanitation (e.g., lack of toilets) puts women at greater risk of gender-based violence. As the primary overseer of household water resources, women are responsible for the smart use, storage, collection and transportation of water. Moreover, women have an increased need for water for hydration, sanitation and hygiene during menstruation, pregnancy, the post-natal period and caring for sick family members or young children.
Amrita University is focused on empowering women to champion water and sanitation, such as through the Women in Sustaining the Environment (WISE) project. Dr. Rao led the WISE project in a collaboration with Tel Aviv University to develop a tool for training women to be water ambassadors for WASH. The initiative improved water quality and quantity in rural communities, resulting in positive health and community impacts for some thousands of individuals. The initiative also built much-needed capacity to sustain WASH education and adoption in villages in India. Moreover, rural women were equipped with the technologies to successfully monitor and maintain local drinking water supplies to help make drinking water accessible to all.
UV developments to support rural communities
Dr. Natalie Hull discussed the benefits and challenges of implementing UV light in rural areas. Dr. Hull is an assistant professor in Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering at The Ohio State University, where she leads the Water TEAM research group. Dr. Hull’s presentation focused on UV as a technology for disinfecting water in decentralized systems, barriers, recent advancements and next steps. Dr. Hull explained that chlorine commonly is used for disinfection but can lead to issues such as taste and odor (T&O), biofilms, pathogens and residual depletion. She highlighted the benefits and drawbacks of using UV light and emphasized that UV and chlorine are not mutually exclusive and can be used together based on the UV sensitivity of different microorganisms.
Dr. Hull also shared work from her research group that could advance adoption of UV in developing contexts: a flow-through UV LED unit and its ability to maintain performance despite challenging water quality conditions, and a quantitative microbial risk assessment of photorepair in decentralized UV systems to inform water system planning and strategic placement of UV systems.
Dr. Hull also discussed novel UV technologies, which may see use in small systems in the future. This included demonstrating the use of novel 222-nm excimer lamps in preventing photorepair by damaging repair proteins, and an investigation of harvesting hydropower for UV LED disinfection for off-grid and pressurized applications. These innovations can be applied within pressurized water distribution systems or in decentralized communal water treatment systems. Ultimately, technology design and selection are not technological or economic problems, but a human problem.
Case study: Safe water and transformed lives in Chiapas, Mexico
Ane Galdos spoke about how women in a rural community in Mexico perceived that a novel UV-based household water treatment system had impacted their lives. Galdos leads Safe Water in Mexico, a transdisciplinary project aimed at designing and implementing water treatment solutions in developing regions, and she also is the leader of the Knowledge Management unit in Cántaro Azul.
Communities in Altos, Chiapas in southern Mexico were impacted through the implementation of household water treatment systems featuring UV disinfection in work conducted by Cántaro Azul. Galdos shared the impact of the intervention on women and the community. The systems were designed to provide 50 to 100 liters per day, resulting in increased water access and less labor for women who are responsible for collecting water. The gravity-fed system featured three filters followed by UV disinfection and helped to reduce risk by limiting the need for water storage and the risk of recontamination.
The results of a 15-month study spanning 24 communities and 444 households included these main points:
- The practice of storing water in multiple containers was discontinued.
- The likelihood of drinking treated water increased from 42% to 89% after the intervention.
- UV disinfection resulted in lower presence of E. coli in drinking water for the duration of the study.
Implementation of UV not only improved water quality, but also transformed people’s way of life. The women using the system reported that life was easier with access to the UV-treated water: “We no longer had to boil water, collect firewood, carry water and carry clothes long distances to wash.”
Both physical and mental health also were reported to improve – less gastrointestinal sickness and back pain, and fewer worries about having to fetch water, the safety of water and children’s wellbeing. Women in this area reported: “We have noticed that children get less sick from diarrhea and stomachache.”
Having access to water on-tap at home also improved security, as families no longer had to fight over water with neighbors or travel during early or late hours of the day to fetch water. However, for many household level interventions, the challenge of operation and maintenance remains.
Ongoing challenges in rural systems
There are fundamental technosocial, financial and practical challenges with implementing UV in rural areas. Other disinfection strategies, such as chlorine, commonly are adopted as low-tech and low-cost alternatives, but have drawbacks where inadequate disinfection can cause issues, such as illness and taste and odor issues.
As Dr. Hull said, UV and chlorine are not mutually exclusive options for disinfection because they have complementary treatment capabilities due to the sensitivity of microorganisms to each disinfectant. However, as with any technology, UV technology must be contextualized and designed with human end users in mind (e.g., ease of use, acceptability, maintenance).
Several challenges should be addressed in rural water systems. First, researchers and NGOs need to participate in the life of the community and demonstrate the importance of quality, not just quantity, of water in rural contexts. Moreover, the speakers highlighted the importance of spending time among the people to learn about issues and build capacity in such a way to limit dependence on researchers. Researchers and organizations also need to adopt trans-disciplinary thinking to address the complex socioeconomic, political and environmental implications of WASH.
In rural communities of developed countries, such as the United States, there has been a push to regionalize water systems, especially for small systems that struggle to provide consistent access to safe water. Regionalization aims to improve the economies of scale and managerial aspects of water systems, but usually comes at the expense of increasing geopolitical challenges and detriments to water service (e.g., poor water pressure and degradation of water quality).
In all contexts, panelists emphasized the importance of demonstrating the connection between water quality and sanitation practices, with an emphasis on behavior change rather than merely implementing a new technology. Maintenance, training operators and following up are critical components of sustaining the transformative impact of water treatment interventions in communities.
Women and water are strongly interwoven threads in the fabric of rural communities. While there currently is “low awareness of what clean drinking water is” in many rural areas, the empowerment of women has immense potential to help garner greater awareness. WASH activities generally are undertaken by women and are daily activities that require effort, time and motivation.
Water insecurity is the inability “to access and benefit from affordable, adequate, reliable and safe water.” As the speakers discussed, increasing access to improved water enables people to experience greater physical and emotional well-being.
Organizations such as the IUVA and IWA strategically are positioned to facilitate the connection of individuals, communities and organizations toward advancing SDG and WASH efforts. This webinar helped the SDG Task Force to achieve the goal of disseminating information about the important role of women and the water-related challenges they face, as well as the potential for UV technology to impact lives in rural contexts.
Contact: Professor Hadas Mamane, Tel Aviv University, firstname.lastname@example.org