Next time you open the water faucet, think for a minute about how much we take that flow of drinkable water for granted. If you are reading this in a high-resource country like Canada, the water that pours out of the tap is clean and perfectly safe to drink. Not only that, the water has been delivered right to your door. It is stored and transported in a safe, cost-effective and efficient way, and we focus on conserving our precious water for future generations.
World Water Day, March 22, is a means of bringing attention to the importance of safe and clean water, and of advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.
Access to clean water is considered to be a basic human right. However, the global reality does not reflect this principle. Worldwide, 780 million people lack access to an improved water source (WHO). Developing nations often struggle with a lack of infrastructure and funds to guarantee clean water, let alone testing and treating contaminated water. In many rural areas, an adequate delivery system is virtually non-existent. There is no policy or plan for effective and sustainable provision of safe water and sanitation.
Clean drinking water is a key determinant of public health. Water-related diseases are a significant contributor to the global burden of illness. Improved access to clean water can reduce diarrhoea and waterborne diseases by at least 25%. Securing access to clean water for all citizens would mean a colossal step in the fight against all kinds of diseases (UNU).
Grand Challenges Canada is tackling this urgent global water challenge. We have developed the Stars in Global Health program to support Bold Ideas with Big Impact from the best and brightest talent, both in low- and middle-income countries and in Canada. To date, Grand Challenges Canada (which is funded by the Government of Canada) has committed over $43 million to the Stars in Global Health program, representing a total of 395 funded projects. Almost 20 of the innovations we support are focussing on the access to clean water, an essential element of the Muskoka goals that the Government of Canada has committed to.
Testing water to prevent disease
Each year, poor water quality causes over four billion cases of diarrhoea worldwide. The disease kills around 2.2 million people annually – mostly children in developing countries. In fact, every 21 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness like diarrhoea (WHO).
The University of Waterloo is working on an innovative test-strip device that offers rapid screening of diarrheal pathogens in water prior to consumption, preventing diarrhoea at its source. This is an in expensive device and will save lives in countries without an adequate public health infrastructure. The trial is implemented in China.
In Kenya, the University of Guelph and University of Toronto are working jointly on a rapid and paper-based test to detect Salmonella typhi contamination in drinking water. The test takes advantage of the specificity of phage tail spike proteins in detecting bacteria, by using them to separate, concentrate and detect the bacteria that cause typhoid fever.
Treating water to reduce waterborne diseases
Consumption of infected water can cause other microbial diseases: water transmits disease when it is contaminated by pathogenic microbes and/or chemicals. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can enter drinking water in many ways. Protecting source water from pollution is critical. Proper testing can detect contaminated water.
In India, many water sources remain under-monitored due to centralized, laborious and time-consuming tests, and access to safe drinking water remains a challenge. The solution that Sabio proposed is a field-usable, sensitive rapid microbial test ensuring safe drinking water in any location.
A team from the University of Nigeria seeks to produce low-cost water purification capsules made from Moringa oleifera seed extract. This purifies impure water, eliminates germs and holds onto toxins and organic matter.
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana) aims to disinfect groundwater using ceramic filters that are impregnated with silver zeolite particles, showing high efficiency in the removal of bacteria.
In emerging countries like Vietnam, small-scale farmers have limited health knowledge and this leads to the risk of livestock waste getting into the water supply system, thus increasing the spread of infectious diseases. The University of Calgary is introducing low-cost water test kits that will help farmers reduce the risk of diseases of animal origin.
Another project, implemented in two countries (Kenya and India) by Action Africa Help International wants to prevent infectious diarrhoea in communities by testing a low-cost, point-of-use method for safe drinking water. Adding a copper stick to a water reservoir can neutralize the diarrhoeal pathogens in water.
Grand Challenges Canada is also supporting a project led by the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania. They are testing the effectiveness of a combination of a locally made water disinfectants, called “Takasamaji” (Chlor-Floc), and a safe drinking water storage container in reducing episodes of diarrhea in rural areas.
Arsenic in drinking water
Arsenic in drinking water is a hazard to human health worldwide. It has attracted much attention since the recognition in the 1990s of its wide occurrence in well water in Bangladesh, one of the areas with the highest arsenic contamination in water in the world. Over 35 million people in that country drink well water contaminated with toxic amounts of arsenic, because monitoring of wells is challenging. This makes the people more susceptible to cancer, among other conditions.
Ryerson University is developing a low cost, simply operated, lab-on-a-chip device that provides an inexpensive and accurate test of the wells.
PurifAid, a social enterprise, is using an innovative filtration system to decontaminate arsenic-poisoned well water, giving local entrepreneurs tools and knowledge to help their communities as a sustainable response to a pernicious health crisis.
For people who are still exposed to high concentrations of arsenic through drinking water, the University of Calgary is introducing lentils from Saskatchewan into the everyday diet of Bangladeshi people. These lentils contain a high dose of the micronutrient selenium, an antagonist of arsenic that can reduce arsenic poisoning.
The problem of arsenic removal from drinking water is addressed in Pakistan by innovators from the University of Agriculture (Faisalabad) and the University of Alberta. The former are using agriculture and food industry solid wastes as a low-cost sorbent that will lead to a low-cost and environmentally friendly arsenic removal filtration technology.
The burden of collecting water
Storing and delivering water is a challenge in many low-resource countries, especially in rural areas. The productivity loss of people collecting water is immense. Women spend 200 million hours a day collecting water (WHO), causing additional health issues.
The WaterWheel, by Biosense Technologies, drastically reduces the time, physical and health burdens of water collection – burdens borne disproportionately by women and girls. The innovative transportation tool will be implemented in India.
Ghana is struggling with high rates of non-functional rural water systems, which lead to poor public health. Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana) is setting up mobile phone technology that will be used to improve the spare parts supply chain and will also pool funds for financing capital maintenance.
Text to Change Mobile is spearheading an innovative project in Uganda that applies an open source tool, utilizing existing mobile technology to radically improve global management of access to water for under-served communities. It empowers people to live a healthy life, enabling children to go to school, and allowing individuals to contribute to their own and global wealth.
Introducing sustainability through innovation and education
The Sustainable Aquatic Agriculture for Lakes project of Grupo Cabal in Nicaragua and the University of Costa Rica will test technologies to cultivate aquatic plants and horticultural and grain crops on floatation, contributing to increased food production without spending fresh water beyond what normally evaporates from lakes.
Education and knowledge empowers individuals and societies to overcome the water challenge. Uniwater Education in Nigeria and Zambia is preparing a Master of Science (MSc) program in Water Resource Proliferation. It will be offered to established universities in sub-Saharan Africa, to educate and train Africans to solve their own water problems.
Water and Energy
One of the themes this year for World Water Day is Energy. Water and energy are closely interlinked and interdependent. Energy generation and transmission requires utilization of water resources.
A project led by the University of Calgary provides a hydroelectric system for a village in Nepal. Unlike conventional micro-hydro systems that regulate power with a dump load, excess power in this project goes into a water heater in each home.
Clean water to empower nations and unlock their potential
Through the many projects supported by Grand Challenges Canada, the Government of Canada is fighting for global access to safe and clean water, as they are fundamental to health, well-being, productivity and poverty eradication, particularly for women and girls. By continued commitment to the Muskoka Initiative and ongoing support for innovative solutions, our Government is demonstrating leadership to help save the lives of women, children and newborns in developing countries. Every dollar invested in safe drinking water has a direct impact, not only in global health but also in unlocking the economic potential of developing countries, stimulating economic growth and employment.