Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hackathon! (for Sanitation)

Hackathons are events where computer programmers with a common interest get together to develop or advance a software-based agenda.  December 1st and 2nd will see the launch of a major Sanitation Hackathon, borne out of a collaboration between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Random Hacks of Kindness, Nokia, and others.  All over the world, programmers will team up with sanitation experts to begin development on information technology solutions to global sanitation issues.

Right now, and in the remaining days before the hackathons convene, the Sanitation Hackathon is soliciting "problem definitions that highlight specific sanitation challenges that could be mitigated by innovative [information and communication technologies]".  Examples of already submitted problem definitions include septage management monitoring, interactive applications to promote behaviour change, improving data quality and quantity concerning cesspool/pit water flows, and rapid financial sustainability assessments of sanitation solutions.  If you have any ideas, you can submit here (but first you have to register).

To participate in the event, you can register by finding your site and following its unique registration process here.  Toilet hackers, based out of NYC, is helping organize the hackathon throughout the United States.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Slum life in Dhaka: Plastic pipes and hanging latrines

From the shore, I can see open sewers and other unidentifiable waste streams flowing energetically into the water I am about to cross. “Come!” beckoned the ferryman. I hesitate, but the low-riding wooden skiff appears to be the sole way to get to where I am going so I step in and quickly sit down on the planks. Soon enough I am climbing out and into the midst of Korail, one of the largest slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh. During the past year, Dhaka has earned two impressive global superlatives: the densest metropolitan area and the least livable city in the world. Some estimates put population density in Dhaka's slums at 2.7 million people per square mile. 

One of the most pressing problems in Korail is access to water and sanitation services. As in many slums in Dhaka, the municipal water and sewerage authority won’t build water and sanitation infrastructure on untenured land. Thus, the residents must rely on a system of illegal plastic flexible pipes to get their drinking water. These flimsy pipes flow through the polluted river I just crossed and weave their way through the open sewage ditches lining Korail’s dirt roads.

We stop walking to watch young women collect water from the plastic pipes. They fill up kolshis, traditional aluminum water pots with narrow necks, as well as plastic soda bottles.  My tour guide and interpreter is from the International Center for Diarrheal Diseases Research, or the “cholera hospital,” as dubbed by locals. We ask the women how often the water comes. Once per day, usually in the morning, but the actual time varies daily, they explain.

We continue through a concrete courtyard encircled by rooms with clothe doors; each is home to a single family. This is a typical living arrangement in Dhaka slums, with 10-15 families sharing a common cooking area, water supply, and toilet. Drinking water is rarely treated, but when it is, boiling is the preferred method. There is no gas stove in the compound - families must use charcoal to cook and boil water. I ask to observe the compound’s toilet, but it is broken. They use the neighbor’s, a “hanging latrine,” which is a wood platform suspended over water flowing into the lake we crossed earlier.  These are quite common in Korail, considering the community is surrounded by water.

Getting clean and cheap drinking water to Dhaka’s slum residents is an enormous task, and one of the main objectives of my research in Bangladesh. Today, the plastic pipes and hanging latrines give me an idea of the challenges ahead.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy World Toilet Day! And some reflections on mid-sized city public toilets..

Happy World Toilet Day!

A few recent news articles from the city I've done my research in - Hubli, India - provides some insight into the options that municipalities consider when deciding to upgrade public toilets. While there's been a lot of good news around development of pay-per-use, community managed public toilet blocks in slums in the mega-cities in India, there is little focus on public toilets in Tier II cities like Hubli, and also not much attention paid to toilets for public use in downtown areas. After many trips running errands at the market downtown Hubli, I can attest how hard it is to find a toilet except at (some) restaurants. The only public ones I've seen are men's urinals that is little more than a wall to stand behind.

Hubli is considering getting pay-per-use toilets that will automatically turn on lights and flush toilets. Public toilets! Except, hopefully not these ones. Though the article says these have been successful in many western countries, this has not been true in the U.S., where cities have started selling off their self-cleaning toilets en masse. Only Portland  has had success with public toilets and then only because they are designed to be unfriendly and no-frills. I can imagine how exciting introducing new technology into toilets seems, and the appeal of what's touted to be cutting-edge, self-cleaning technology; except, why don't they hear about these failures in the U.S.?

It seems other 'technology' solutions are appealing to the Hubli municipality: another news article reports that the city is considering mobile toilets or bio-toilets. While these make for some great buzz words and certainly these options could work (port-a-potties certainly work in the U.S., and eco-san has a huge fan base), all of these solutions Hubli suggest that they just need a drop of technology to solve the problem - which, as we know, is not the answer.

This brings up a good point: after seeing some of the municipality working in a city like Hubli, it seems sources of information and knowledge to help cities plan for elements of water and sanitation are sparse.  Where would a mid-sized city like Hubli find out about options for providing public toilets, using examples from elsewhere in India or for similar cities across the world? Other than some WSP reports, I can't think of a good way that exists for disseminating and sharing this kind of information in a way that municipalities can easily access and understand it. Instead, they hear news reports and industry pamphlets where technologies sound alluring and attractive and include these buzz-words (bio-, automatic, portable, energy-producing), convincing cities they need these buzz-words too. How can cities and towns find out about failures as well as successes, and what won't work (not just the headlines of "San Francisco invests in self-cleaning toilets", but also the end of the story, "San Francisco sells failed toilets")? While there's great NGOs doing work around developing solutions for rural areas or off-grid slums, how can we assist municipalities, who often have the ability to reach to large populations, in planning sanitation for their cities? I think this - working with utilities and municipalities to help them make informed decisions about their sanitation systems, from collection to treatment and disposal - is one of the major challenges we've barely started to address.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Inadequate Sanitation Is Not Only a Developing World Problem

Those of us working in the international sector occasionally need reminders that developed countries, like the United States, also suffer from inadequate sanitation.  One reminder is the failure of US wastewater systems during large storm events.  Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast early last week, caused substantial quantities of sewage to leak into United States waterways.  In many cases, this was the result of combined sewer overflows.  Other causes included power failures and, in at least one case, a sewage main break.  Below are a sampling of links (not exhaustive) to news reports documenting extensive sewage overflows caused by Sandy.

Power outages knocked out a wastewater treatment plant in Newark, causing 500 million gallons of raw sewage to poor into the Newark Bay:

20-25 million gallons poured into Little Patuxent River in Howard County, Maryland due to power outages:

That was one of only 19 wastewater treatment plants in Maryland, with (for example) Frederick county reporting thousands of gallons of partially-treated wastewater flowing into creeks and streams:

15-20 million gallons of partially-treated sewage flowed into Long Island Sound from overflows in Bridgeport, Connecticut while 60,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into Seth Williams Brook outside Ledyard, Connecticut:

9.3 million gallons of raw sewage due to a main break in Virginia:

Monday, October 8, 2012

California Law on Human Right to Water

Two weeks ago (September 25) saw the passing of assembly bill 685 in California.  The bill included the following text:
Existing law establishes various state water policies, including the policy that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water. This bill would declare that it is the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. The bill would require all relevant state agencies, including the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the State Department of Public Health, to consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and grant criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described above.
Although I can not say for certain what impact this bill will have, what I have seen suggests it will be used to advocate for safe drinking water provision in areas where insufficient or contaminated water is all that is available.  Other proposed bills (and at least some passed, if not all) centered on water issues that advocate for posting warnings at contaminated water supplies in local languages, increase access to funds that can be used to clean up contaminated water supplies, and improve water access in fringe communities.

The bill is here:

A description on all six proposed bills relating to water by California Watch from last year is here (if you know the status of the other five bills, leave it in the comments!):

The U.N. News Report on the bill (including quotes from Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to to safe drinking water and sanitation) is here:

Monday, October 1, 2012

Groundwater constituents provide nutritional supplement

When I hear "groundwater" and "Bangladesh"  together in a sentence, I immediately start thinking about all of the public health related issues caused by unsafe water supplies in that country.  However, Rebecca Merrill and fellow researchers at Johns Hopkins University have recently shown that some groundwater constituents may be beneficial.  In a study of 209 women of reproductive age in rural Bangladesh, Dr. Merrill demonstrated that daily iron intake from  groundwater sources was positively correlated to biomarkers of iron nutritional status.  Dr. Merrill attributes the low prevalence of iron deficiency in the population studied to the presence of iron in the groundwater.  Iron deficiency is a leading cause of anemia, and is estimated to be the world's most common single micronutrient defiency.  The take-away message is that consuming iron rich drinking water likely improves iron nutritional status, and that something in the water may be responsible for improvements in health.

Dr. Merril's publication linking groundwater iron to biomarkers:

Dr. Merril's earlier publication on measuring iron in groundwater:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Attention Class of 2013: Princeton in Africa is recruiting

Fellows will be placed with an organization committed to Africa's advancement through a variety of activities and projects.  45 fellowship will be offered for work in ~15 countries next year.  12 month appointments.   Young alumni and graduating seniors from any non-profit university in the US are eligible to apply. 

The deadline is Nov 18.

More information here:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Learning from mistakes

Few organizations take the time to report why a project has failed, yet there is so much to be learned from these mistakes!


 CHINA: World's largest eco-toilet scheme abandoned 

The world’s biggest eco-toilet scheme at Inner Mongolia’s Daxing eco-community has been shelved after years of complaints about odour, health issues and maggots, according to local press. A normal flush toilet system has been installed. The urine separating toilets were designed by Sweden’s Stockholm Environment Institute, and are used by around five million people globally.

The Stockholm Environment Institute says that the project ‘encountered many challenges and uncovered many truths’.  The institute noted that before the project the residents of the town suffered water rationing and used mainly public toilets, which were generally pit latrines. The city and surrounding area rapidly urbanized during the project, so the basis for the project – extreme water shortage and poverty – quickly disappeared. The response also points to poor plumbing work, improper construction, poor ventilation and a lack of pipe insulation as contributing to the issues reported.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

ReadySet Solar Kit on Kickstarter

My friend Mike Lin and his startup Fenix International just launched the ReadySet energy system on Kickstarter. Please check out this link:   They’ve already raised over $50,000 to bring affordable solar energy to the USA and Africa and they need your help to spread the word!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Post-2015 Water Supply Monitoring

Here is your chance to weigh in on the goals, targets and indicators for post-2015 JMP monitoring of water supply globally.  Deadline: June 18.

New article in World Development

Does User Participation Lead to Sense of Ownership for Rural Water Systems? Evidence from Kenya

August 2012
Sara J. Marks | Jennifer Davis
Summary: Despite broad acceptance of the idea that “sense of ownership” among users is critical to infrastructure sustainability in developing countries, little is known about what sense of ownership is, or its drivers. We present a novel measure of sense of ownership for piped water systems using empirical data collected from 1140 households in 50 rural Kenyan villages. This study establishes an empirical referent for households’ sense of ownership. We find that some, but not all, types of participation enhance community members’ sense of ownership for rural water projects.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Grants and a Fellowship available through EASST

The East Africa Social Science Translation (EASST) Collaborative invites economic, public health and other social science researchers and students from East Africa to apply for the 2012 Visiting Scholar Fellowship.  The three-month fellowship will be based at a CEGA-network campus (University of California or Stanford), and can be spent auditing courses, presenting recent work, attending seminars, developing curricula, and designing collaborative research projects. Upon completing the fellowship, the candidate is expected to return to a university or research institute in East Africa and assume a leading role in the global effort on impact evaluation for economic development. Applications are due 18 JUNE 2012; admission is rolling.

Click here for the application.  Other grants are available too!

World Bank launches the Water Blog

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Congratulations to Stanford's Dhaka-ESW team!

Stanford's Engineers for a Sustainable World Dhaka project team ( won first place and a $20k prize in the Social Entrepreneurship Challenge sponsored by BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students).  CONGRATULATIONS!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stanford Woods Institute May Newsletter

US Dept of State recognizes water as a national security issue; reduced time spent fetching water linked with improved child health; DC bootcamp; and more...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

'Drill and provide' is not the answer

An important perspective, following on my April 23 post:

"The authors caution against a simple ‘drill and provide’ approach, noting that groundwater storage is patchy, and ad hoc development unwise. The kind of Green Revolution seen in South Asia, based on intensive groundwater development and subsidised energy, will not be repeated across rural Africa."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gates Foundation Announces 2nd Round of Reinvent the Toilet Challenge

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the second round of the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge." In this phase, the foundation will disburse a set of new grants to support research that advances sanitation and hygiene in the developing world. Proposals are due by May 10, 2012. Learn more.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

JOB OPENING: Water Analysis Coordinator - WASH Benefits Project

We are looking for someone to start as soon as possible, and short term
contracts will be considered. Please tell interested candidates to email Dr. Amy Pickering

POSITION: Water Analysis Coordinator-Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
Benefits Project (WASH)
DEADLINE TO APPLY: March 20, 2012 (applicants will be reviewed on a
rolling basis)
START DATE: Immediately
LOCATION: Kakamega, Kenya
ELIGIBILITY: Position open to all nationalities; Kenyan nationals
strongly encouraged apply

IPA’s WASH Benefits Project is a five-year study to evaluate the
health benefits of sanitation, hygiene, household water treatment and
nutrition using a large-scale, randomized evaluation in Western
Province. The project will be based out of two satellite offices in
Western Province. The principal investigators of WASH benefits are
Michael Kremer and Clair Null. The successful candidate for this
position will work closely with postdoctoral fellow Amy Pickering, the
WASH benefits management team, and local field staff.

IPA’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) benefits project seeks a
qualified applicant for the position of water analysis coordinator.
The water analysis coordinator will manage sample collection,
processing, and microbial analysis of water samples from drinking
water sources and household stored water in the project study area of
Western Kenya. In addition, the successful candidate will oversee
collection and microbial analysis of child hand and toy rinse samples,
as well as implement a protocol to quantify flies in household
compounds. The position offers an opportunity to gain first-hand field
management experience in an organization undertaking cutting-edge
environmental health research. This position will be based in
Kakamega, with travel to Bungoma and other areas of Western Kenya.

• Develop and oversee implementation of field protocols:
o Collection of source water, household stored water, child hand
rinse, and child toy rinse samples
o Chlorine residual measurements of household stored water
o Collection of GPS coordinates of community water sources
o Quantification of flies near latrines and eating areas of study households
• Develop and oversee implementation of lab processing protocols to
enumerate E. coli, total coliform, and fecal coliform bacteria,
including appropriate QA/QC procedures
• Managing lab technicians, including development and implementation
of quality control and quality assurance procedures and checking and
analyzing data
• Cleaning data and assisting in preliminary analysis
• Assisting in the writing of project reports and policy memos

Desired Qualifications and Experience
• At least one year of experience in laboratory water quality
analysis, preferably in the context of a field lab in a developing
• Experience with membrane filtration and culture based bacterial assays
• A Bachelor's degree in biology, environmental health, or related fields.
• Experience living in a developing country is a strong plus
• Excellent management and organizational skills along with strong
quantitative skills
• Fluency and excellent communication skills in English; fluency in
Swahili is a strong plus
• Flexible, self-motivating, able to manage multiple tasks
efficiently, and team player
• We are looking for a commitment period of 1 year for this position.

If you are interested in applying, please follow the instructions below:

To apply: Please send a cover letter and detailed CV, 3 references,
daytime phone number(s), and email address. Your CV should include
your scores or grades and other measures of academic achievement, and
details about any relevant work experience.

Applications can be submitted to any of our branch offices, or by
email to ,or by post office using P.O
Box 373, Busia area code 50400 Kenya. If you submit by email, please
ensure that the subject line reads: “WATER ANALYSIS COORDINATOR.”REF
NO: WB-2012-03-01. Only short-listed candidates will be contacted by
email for an interview. Applicants are encouraged to apply early, as
applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

Monday, March 12, 2012

World Achieves MDG For Safe Water Years Before Target Date

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

"Developing countries have already achieved their 2015 [Millennium Development Goal (MDG)] of drastically reducing the number of people without regular access to improved drinking water, though much of the credit lies with India and China," UNICEF and the WHO said in a joint report (.pdf) on Tuesday, Reuters reports (Charbonneau, 3/6). "According to the [WHO] and UNICEF joint monitoring program for water supply and sanitation (JMP), between 1990 and 2010 more than two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells" and "at the end of 2010, 89 percent of the population -- 6.1 billion people -- now used improved drinking water sources, one percent more than the 88 percent target contained in [MDG] number seven, set in 2000," the Guardian writes (Ford, 3/6).

"United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this was 'a great achievement for the people of the world' and noted it was one of the first MDGs to be met," Reuters writes in a separate article (Kelland, 3/6). UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake in a statement "cautioned against declaring victory too early, as at least 11 percent of the world's population -- or 783 million people -- still have no safe drinking water, and some 2.5 billion do not have improved sanitation facilities," a UNICEF press release notes (3/6). "UNICEF and WHO called for greater attention to water and sanitation needs in rural areas across the globe where millions of poor people still have no access," the Associated Press writes (Lederer, 3/6).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Aquatest: a decentralized water quality monitoring tool

Aquatest is a system for collecting water quality data onsite, and the Water Quality Reporter (WQR) is a mobile phone application for sending these data to area water system managers and/or central water quality control labs. This article describes field tests in Cambodia, Vietnam and Mozambique.

My question is - what are the incentives for field staff to report their data regularly and accurately?

Monday, January 16, 2012

PhD Graduate Research Assistantship opportunities in Geography

Full research support for PhD positions at Indiana University are available
starting Fall 2012 associated with multiple NSF funded projects
focused on land change science. Research assistantships are available
with the following projects: 1) food security and climate change in
Zambia, and 2) climate change, irrigation and water governance in
Kenya and Western United States. Research activities will include
field work and data analysis, including opportunities for Summer 2012.

Students will have the opportunity to work with students and faculty
associated with several research centers on campus focused on
multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of Coupled-Natural Systems
including the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and
Environmental Change (CIPEC) and the Workshop in Political Theory and
Policy Analysis.

We seek students with proficiency in one or more of the following
areas: GIS, remote sensing, statistical analysis of household-level
survey data, and spatial modeling (especially agent-based modeling).

Interested students should contact Dr. Tom Evans,
evans(at), with a CV and brief research statement.
Application materials should be submitted by February 1, 2012 for full

Sunday, January 8, 2012

new monitoring tool for WASH projects in urban areas

A Child’s Right [a Tacoma, WA-based NGO] installs clean water systems in orphanages, schools and children’s hospitals in urban areas in the developing world. In October 2011, the NGO launched Proving It, a web site that tracks the status of all its projects, from inception to installation and then routinely thereafter. A Child’s Right is not afraid to stick the label “failed” on projects when systems are no longer working, explaining what went wrong and what has been learned.

Text copied from: WASH News International