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Access to clean water - student research

Claire A Hughes


I'm part of a group of UK engineering students who is travelling with the Royal Academy of Engineering to the Global Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing this September.

As part of the summit teams of students from the UK, US and China will design and present a new engineering solution to one of the global grand challenges in engineering. My group has chosen 'Providing Access to Clean Water' as our challenge, and we aim to engineer a new solution, either a product or a strategy, to improving access to clean water which we will then present as part of the student competition in Beijing.

At the moment we're hoping to talk to anyone who has experience in providing access to clean water in developing countries, particularly in rural communities.

We'd like to know anything that would help us decide what aspect to focus on, whether we should be aiming to filter/treat contaminated water, extract water from the ground/air, or whether we should be focusing on waste water treatment and improving sanitation.

Any help or ideas would be greatly appreciated as it will ensure that our solution if focused on the area which requires the most attention.



Dear Claire

Thanks for your enquiry. I've forwarded it directly to our RedR experts on the subjects and, hopefully, you should be getting some responses soon on the following link

Good luck with your trip!

Kind regards, Leigh

LC Jones RedR TSS/ KnowsledgePoint

RedR TSS gravatar imageRedR TSS ( 2015-06-19 22:05:33 )


mikeem gravatar imagemikeem ( 2015-06-20 08:17:52 )

3 Answers

Safe Water Strategy

Dear Claire,

The rural water and sanitation sector is plagued by high failure rates because technolgies are not designed for sustainability and there is a lack of understanding of the local context. A third of rural water systems break down soon after they are installed, toilets are either not used or there are no systems to safely dispose of waste.

The WASHTech project has attempted to address these issues by developing tools to assess and introduce new technologies. A short video provides a good introduction to the tools. The tools themselves and case studies of their use are available on

To get an idea of what are the main (technology) issues related to rural water supply and who is working on them, the best place to go is the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) - A similar platform for sanitation practitioners is SuSanA -

One thing to be aware of if you wish to focus on rural water supply is that people's water needs are broader than just drinking water. They need water for cooking, washing, sanitation, watering animals, growing food and generating income as well. Technology choices need to take these multiple uses into account. See for more information.

Besides being robust and reliable, the best technologies are those that can be easily tweaked to local contexts, locally produced and maintained and are scalable.

Cor Dietvorst Programme Officer | Information Specialist and News Editor | IRC | | Twitter @dietvorst

Jose Edgar Villalobos

Hi Claire,

We are working with Potter for Peace, NGO Agency, to provide cheap ceramic filters to rural and indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. The filters have been working for more that 4 years providing very cheap and safe drinking water to 5 families in Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico. Please contact me, if you want more information about it.

My email is:

Best regards,

Jose Edgar Villalobos Enciso, Associate Professor, Universidad Autonoma de Chiapas, Mexico

Alan Stinchcombe

Hi Claire,

I wish you well in your project, but I'm not sure that there is any single issue that "requires the most attention", since communities' environmental and economic challenges are so varied.

For example, there are water-challenged communities (even in rainforests!) where water quality testing and treatment may have relatively low priority, even for drinking water, because access to any relatively clean groundwater is the highest priority for improving health and hygiene and there are neither government nor community funds. This won't be true for communities with more resources and education which already have water, but it is contaminated.

Therefore, you may have to settle for an issue that evidence indicates is the greatest challenge for communities in one particular setting.

As Cor suggests, unless the community already has expertise in maintaining agricultural equipment, even a VLOM pump may not be sustainable for lack of spares and expertise.

I am trying to assist a hunter-gatherer community that barely participates in the cash economy, in its dry-season quarters in southern Cameroon, three days travel from the nearest international airport. My focus has been on an (expensive & dangerous to dig) dug well with:

  • a secure well-housing,
  • a (sustainable!) bucket & windlass and
  • a siphon mechanism for emptying the bucket while maintaining bio-security (probably sustainable only if cheaply mass-produced - my prototype uses a re-engineered toilet flushing siphon and is still awaiting field testing)

Thank you for engaging with the global challenge,

Alan Stinchcombe


RWSN has a good overview of the self-supply type of option you are focussing on at:

CDietvorst gravatar imageCDietvorst ( 2015-06-21 10:32:25 )

Thank you, Cor! Hand drilling a shallow tube-well in Zimbabwe and fitting a simple “Bailer-bucket” for water looks highly relevant although, until multiple wells can be bored, security is obviously harder for a community to manage than a family unit. Sandy Cairncross, for one, has also pointed out the potential contamination hazard of placing the bucket on the ground.

Alan Stinchcombe gravatar imageAlan Stinchcombe ( 2015-06-21 13:09:31 )