Research Spotlight: Seeking solutions for unsafe water

Supported by a $270,000 grant from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and additional SMU funds, faculty member Andrew Quicksall and his graduate students in the University’s Lyle School of Engineering are collecting water samples in UNHCR refugee camps, bringing samples back to SMU for analysis, and training workers in and around the camps to test water supplies.

The group will integrate information from multiple sources to develop a database that will help UNHCR planners provide safer drinking water in existing and future camps.

“They’ve asked us to build out a whole picture, truly worldwide, for what’s in the drinking water in refugee camps,” said Quicksall, J. Lindsay Embrey Trustee Assistant Professor in the Lyle School. “So we’re going to go on-site, collect water, analyze some in the field and bring quite a bit of water back to our SMU laboratories and get a full picture.”

The database developed by Quicksall’s group will identify contaminants in drinking water and allow UNHCR officials to track water quality in the camps over time. Some water quality problems are indigenous to the regions where the camps are situated, some develop over time, and some are the nearly instant consequence of thousands of people collecting in unsuitable locations to escape war and famine faster than sanitary infrastructure can be built.

For example, the agreement with UNHCR commits Quicksall’s team to investigate critical water issues in Dadaab, Kenya – home to the largest refugee complex in the world. Nearly half a million people are concentrated in three camps there, many living in makeshift shelters of twigs, reeds and scraps. Refugees pouring across the border to escape war and famine in Somalia continue to face shortages of food, water, shelter and sanitation hazards there.

“The technical challenges of supporting refugee populations of this size will require that our teams stay engaged with the UNHCR for years to come,” said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. “Fortunately, our new Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity makes it possible to lead efforts of this magnitude nearly anywhere on the globe.”

Some camps have safe drinking water available, but the taste is so off-putting that residents seek out other sources. In Nakivale, Uganda, for example, the high iron content in well water drives refugees to drink surface water that is frequently contaminated with coliform bacteria. Quicksall’s group also will investigate methods of improving the taste of such safe, but unpalatable, drinking water.

Preliminary research results have revealed problematic concentrations of iodide in drinking water at Dadaab and fluoride in both Southern Uganda and Kakukma, Kenya. Some types of contaminants may not create problems short-term, Quicksall explains, but create severe health issues for people over the long term – particularly children and the elderly. His study group will have the opportunity to both recommend and implement remediation methods for those problem water sources, he said.

“To work with the science in the lab and see it applied internationally — I don’t think there is an opportunity like this anywhere else,” said graduate student Drew Aleto, a member of Quicksall’s study team.

Written by Kimberly Cobb

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

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