Kellogg Schwab on human challenges of clean water

Kellogg Schwab told EarthSky that providing clean water and sanitation in the developing world takes more than just engineering water filters or purification systems.

Kellogg Schwab: Approximately 1.5 million children are dying every year. Every 15 seconds, a child dies from a diarrheal disease. A lot of this is contributed to by water and inadequate sanitation.

Kellogg Schwab is director of the Center for Water and Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He said that providing clean water and sanitation in the developing world takes more than just engineering water filters or purification systems.

Kellogg Schwab: We have technology to treat water anywhere in the world. However, if you don’t incorporate people’s beliefs and values it will not be sustainable.

Dr. Schwab gave an example from Africa. Experts set up a water treatment facility where one community could come to collect clean water, instead of retrieving it from contaminated rivers or streams. But, Schwab said, the way water was carried and stored became an important factor.

Kellogg Schwab: It becomes re-contaminated. So not only do you have to treat the water, you have to protect that water, from source till sip.

Schwab added that a wider field of experts is needed to tackle the challenge of getting people clean water.

Kellogg Schwab: We have to put behavior in there, we have to use social science, incorporate engineers with policy people, and anthropologists to understand what’s driving people’s choices on water on the water they’re trying to collect.

Schwab said that water treatment options and techniques have been advancing, from personal water purification systems to community-level treatment centers. But there’s still no tried-and-true method for sustainable and reliable clean water.

Kellogg Schwab: What we’re working on is understanding behavior and the anthropological aspects of what is driving people’s selection for water. We don’t have all the solutions. We do know that when you involve women in this process from the very beginning, and you have education groups to realize the cultural differences, that improves the capability of the water being in place, in a high quality system down the road.

Schwab said the key is empowering local communities, and helping people understand the value of clean water. He added that clean water makes a huge difference in both individual lives, and the development of the country.

Kellogg Schwab: Imagine not having to worry about your children dying when they consume water. A lot of the time individuals know that the water is poor quality, but they don’t have a choice. It can dramatically improve the quality of life. It can also improve productivity for countries. If people aren’t sick all the time, they have a more productive work force.

Lindsay Patterson