Partners in Action: The Aquaya Institute

Lifeline’s Partners in Action series highlights the dedicated individuals and innovative ideas behind the partnerships that make our work possible. 

We connected with Katherine Marshall and Lisa Appavou about their work with Aquaya and current research partnership with Lifeline’s EverFlow initiative in Apac, Uganda

Katherine Marshall is a Research & Program Manager at the Aquaya Institute, where she supports research efforts related to water safety management. Katherine has a MS degree in Engineering Science (Environmental Engineering concentration) from the University of South Florida and a BS degree in Geology from the College of Charleston. Katherine is originally from South Carolina in the United States, but currently lives in Uganda. She first came to Uganda in 2014 as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

Lisa Appavou grew up in the Italian region of Switzerland. She is pursuing  her master’s degree at the Technical School of Lausanne (EPFL) in Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Currently, Lisa is completing a three-month internship in Uganda with the Aquaya Institute.

Lifeline: Tell us about your research in Apac, Uganda. What are you investigating and why? What are some of the big unknowns you are working to answer?

Lisa: I’ve now been in Apac for one month working on the study Aquaya is currently conducting in this rural region of Uganda. The goal of the study is to assess the effectiveness of an inline chlorination system, PurAll 50H, at improving water safety in 20 communities (10 control and 10 chlorinated). In addition, we would like to evaluate the potential to incorporate this water treatment in a handpump maintenance program, such as Everflow. 

The challenge we are addressing is that many water sources deemed safe don’t meet national drinking water standards; faecal contamination has been found in several sources throughout Uganda. Moreover, water contamination is likely to increase from the point of collection to the point of consumption, endangering people’s health. In this context, chlorination has been considered as a water treatment to help remove existing contamination and prevent post-collection recontamination. We are going to test an inline chlorinator technology that passively disinfects water at handpumps, which showed promising results during a rapid field test conducted in 2019.

Katherine: As the sector strives to bring safely managed water services to everyone, handpumps will continue to be a big part of the rural water supply landscape. Innovative service providers, such as Everflow, have figured out how to keep handpumps functional and water flowing for nearly 365 days a year. Professionalized handpump maintenance models are making great strides in ensuring rural communities have reliable access to at least basic water supplies. 

However, when we bring in the dimension of water quality, the picture is a little more sobering. Data indicate that we can probably expect microbial contamination, on average, in somewhere between 30-50% of boreholes. And data also suggest that water quality often deteriorates from point of collection to point of consumption. One of the big questions, then, is: how can we provide safe drinking water to the millions of people who rely on handpumps for water access? 

Consistent, proper, and sustained use of household water treatment technologies (or maybe techniques) has not been realized at scale in many contexts, sometimes despite pronounced efforts. Treating water at the source seems like a promising alternative to point of consumption treatment. So, the second question is: does adding chlorination to a handpump maintenance service improve the safety of water consumed by households?

Lifeline: How did Aquaya come to pursue this project?

Katherine: Since its founding, Aquaya has been working in the realm of water quality.  Aquaya’s Monitoring for Safe Water (MfSW) program, initiated in 2012 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and currently supported by the Hilton Foundation, aims to develop context-specific strategies for water safety management. While the sector might have effective solutions that are seemingly sustainable, the fact is, overall, adoption remains low and many rural water users are likely still consuming drinking water of unacceptable quality to protect public health. It is in this vein that Aquaya has come to investigate approaches for water treatment at handpumps.

Lifeline: And Lisa, as an intern, what brought you to this area of research?

Lisa: I have always been touched by the inequalities that reign today, both at the level of a country and, more broadly, at a global level. With my interest in development and technology I embarked on a curriculum to explore in particular the challenges faced by the Global South. In this context, out of personal interest and to finalize my studies, I was really looking for an internship that would allow me to be on the ground and put into practice what I have learned so far. And until now I am very happy with the experience, which is teaching me a lot. I definitely think that this will not be my last experience in the field of water and sanitation.

Lifeline: What is unique about your approach in this project?

Lisa: The project focuses on the feasibility to deliver a complete water service, which combines a water treatment system with a handpump maintenance program. While many studies have been conducted on different methods to improve water quality, and researchers are starting to explore the delivery of maintenance services, no one has combined these two factors. This is a unique approach to the goal of improving access to  more reliable and safe water sources. Our hypothesis is that such a service could be a sustainable solution for improving access to drinking water in rural areas. 

Lifeline: How is the local community of Apac involved in this work?

Lisa: First of all, we organised meetings with some of the Everflow communities to inform them about our study and ask them to join it. The enrolment was decided by a secret ballot, where every member of the community present had the opportunity to give their opinion. The feedback so far has been positive; the communities have enthusiastically welcomed our study.

For the communities that will receive  a chlorinator, we will organise training to review chlorine safety and demonstrate how the device functions so that everyone is aware and comfortable with it. Also,we hired four enumerators from the region to help with collection of water samples and interviews with the communities. Finally, at the end of our study, we will organise dissemination meetings to discuss the results with each of the communities that were part of it.

At every moment we are in contact and we collaborate with local people who know more than anyone else how things work here.

Lifeline: What does this research mean for the greater WASH sector? How will the findings move us toward a world where everyone has sufficient access to clean water?

Lisa: The results of the study can help the scientific community, local authorities and NGOs to implement and deploy a service combining stable access to safe water on a large scale. By testing our hypothesis, we will learn if this is a worthwhile approach  to improve WASH conditions and protect public health. 

Katherine: Specifically, as the rural water sector shifts to a service delivery mindset, the approach of point of collection chlorination, especially inline chlorination, could potentially fit very well into professionalized maintenance models. But, currently, chlorination at handpumps is uncommon and there is limited evidence which speaks to the effectiveness of this approach. This is something we will explore in our research and hope others will build on to develop models that support more consistent access to clean water.