4 December 2006
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is representing South Africa in an international, multi-partner project aiming to demonstrate that solar disinfection of drinking water is an effective intervention against waterborne diseases.
The European Union (EU) recently awarded a €1.9-million research grant to the three-year programme, which will be carried out by nine research groups in Ireland, Kenya, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and Zimbabwe.
According to the CSIR, the project could be of immeasurable benefit to “vulnerable communities in developing countries who normally do not have a reliable, safe water supply, as well as those communities who might find themselves exposed to natural or man-made disasters.”
The project aims to help reduce the number of fatalities, especially among sub-Sahara African children under the age of five, caused by diarrhoeal diseases resulting from exposure to contaminated water.
According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2006, diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children worldwide, claiming the lives of around 1.8-million children a year, while 1.1-billion people in the world still have no regular access to clean water.
Solar disinfection of drinking water is a low-tech, safe and affordable method to improve water quality. It involves placing contaminated water in transparent bottles which are then placed in direct sunshine for six hours.
The method has been approved by the World Health Organisation, and is commended for its proven efficiency in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia in 2004.
Over the next three years, the multidisciplinary research team will investigate the health benefits of using solar disinfected drinking water in developing countries, the factors that influence communities to adopt or reject the technique, whether the basic technique can be improved using simple technologies, and whether there are any major waterborne diseases that are not susceptible to it.
“We want to confirm the considerable health benefits that can be derived, at no cost, from drinking solar disinfected water, and increase awareness of this method in our country and other countries where sunlight abounds,” said Martella du Preez, a senior CSIR researcher who coordinates the health impact studies in African countries.
“After a series of laboratory and field trials, we are certain that it is an effective way of preventing many diseases such as cholera, dysentery or polio, and that it should be considered as an option alongside boiling, chlorination and other standard water treatment methods,” Du Preez said.
As part of the agreement, CSIR researcher Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa has travelled to Ireland to take up a three-year PhD research position at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Ubomba-Jaswa will spend 18 months in Ireland and England before moving to Spain to complete her experiments under real sun conditions.
Other institutions participating in the study include the Kenyan International Community for the Relief of Suffering and Starvation, the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development in Zimbabwe, the universities of Ulster and Leicester in the UK, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and Spain’s University of Santiago de Compostela and Plataforma Solar de Almeria.