The drinking water situation in Uganda

According to JMP, a WHO/UNICEF program, over 20 million Ugandans do not have access to a safe drinking water source and 2.15 million of these still rely on unsafe, surface water sources such as open wells, surface runoff and streams which puts them at a high risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as diarrhea.

Many schools rely on purifying water by boiling over a fire, requiring significant time to collect or extra money to purchase firewood. This produces daily exposure to smoke that is harmful for the children’s respiratory heath and not always adequate for providing safe water as at times children still consume untreated water. Moreover 50% of the healthcare centers surveyed by African STEM Education Initiative (ASEI) in Kyegegwa district did not treat their water for patients in any way and the doctors needed to conduct directly observed therapy (DOT) at times. The need in both cases was for a reliable long-lasting water treatment system that would ensure sufficient safe treated water was accessible to the community.

UNSW humanitarian engineering, real world challenges with real world partners 

In the last two years UNSW engineering students enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering’s Humanitarian Engineering Project course have worked with Gulu University and ASEI to provide safe drinking water to schools and healthcare facilities in Northern and Western Uganda. 

ASEI is a Ugandan based social enterprise founded in 2020 by Gulu University alumni from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment to upskill young people in Uganda in science and technology and promote transformative innovation in renewables, education, and the water sector. Since its inception, ASEI has mentored 500+ students in two secondary schools, installed water treatment units at two healthcare centers each with an average of 250 daily patient visits, and had staff collaborate with Gulu University and UNSW to deploy solar powered UV-C water treatment units at two schools and a healthcare facility in Moyo and Gulu districts of Northern Uganda. 

UNSW’s Humanitarian Engineering program facilitates undergraduate students to support and learn from real world partners working on humanitarian challenges.  A project such as this provides a pathway for students to take their theory and hone their practical skills from the class to the field.

What the teams worked on

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the student teams at UNSW met weekly via zoom with the Uganda partners to 1) co-design bio-filters for sediment removal and pathogen reduction from rural surface water systems with turbidity > 50 NTU and 2) develop a cost-effective E. coli monitoring method for the point of use bio-filter and UV-C drinking water systems. The teams assessed available local water quality data in the target areas and looked at challenges that restrict effective water quality monitoring for remote point of use systems.

An efficient biofiltration design that ensured turbidity was < 5 NTU as recommended by WHO was developed by UNSW students in partnership with ASEI. A study that analyzed existing methods of E. coli monitoring i.e., Multiple tube fermentation (MTF), plate count enumeration, and membrane filter technique and emerging methods such as lateral flow devices, PCR, biosensors, and Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) was also done. Parameters such as sensitivity, cost, and employability were compared for each method. E. coli Test Strips (ETS) were identified as the most affordable, robust, sensitive and equipment free option for water quality monitoring. 

Field deployments in Uganda

In the field set up, the bio-filter design was built and connected in series with a UV-C reactor powered through a 12V/20Ah solar DC electricity. This was deployed at two schools and one healthcare facility in Moyo and Gulu districts. In perfect use scenarios, the systems deliver water with <1 NTU turbidity and achieve a greater than 3-log reduction in microorganisms all of which meet WHO recommendations for safe drinking water. An added benefit of the School installation as reported by Dr. Jimmy Byakatonda at Gulu University, “We have successfully installed our first unit at a primary school near Gulu city to enable us conduct some field monitoring that is not far away from the University campus. At this primary school, they have been using firewood to boil water for the children. This installation saves them not only the cost of the firewood but also conserves the environment.” 

Photo showing a point of use UV-C Water Treatment Unit at Dufile Health Center III, Moyo District, Uganda.

The UV-C Water Treatment Unit at Dufile Health Centre III in Moyo District reaches 250 people in a week while the ones at Masaloa Primary School Moyo and Hilder Primary School in Gulu supply drinking water to 464 and 560 pupils respectively. 

“The UV-C Water Treatment system has provided clean water, reduced water borne infections and improved the school’s safe water management, sanitation and health”

- Dravu Lawrence, Head Teacher - Masaloa Primary School, Moyo District.

Challenges and Ongoing Commitment 

Despite the success, the first field deployments encountered a number of challenges such as dirt accumulation on taps and water tanks, poor drainage, less demonstrated community ownership leading to faster spoilage, and failure to replace broken parts.

To rectify some of the problems encountered, in 2022 the UNSW Humanitarian Engineering Project class worked with ASEI to design solar powered water treatment microfactories or stations with an aim of creating a safe, easy-to-use product that puts all water treatment components within a single enclosure. 

ASEI hopes to deliver water to more schools and perhaps help local people create sustainable businesses and deliver safe drinking water at affordable rates to their communities. With travel again allowing in-person visits, UNSW students will be traveling to Uganda in May 2023 with the support of UNSW Faculty of Engineering to continue this collaboration and support the efforts of ASEI and Gulu University.