SAFEWATER for everyone

14 May 2019

SAFEWATER for everyone

In 2010 the United Nations declared it a human right for every person on the planet to have access to safe drinking water. Yet, approximately one third of the population do not have access to clean water. Waterborne diarrhoeal diseases cause at least 2 million deaths per year, with the majority occurring in young children under 5 years of age. Dirty water is also associated with severe malnutrition problems worldwide, as in 2014 it was reported that over 150 million children had stunted growth and an estimated 2 billion individuals suffer from deficiencies in essential micronutrients. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that around 50% of undernutrition is associated with infections caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation or insufficient hygiene. 

Education is an essential tool for preventing illness and malnutrition caused by contaminated water. SfAM member Dr Bill Snelling and the SAFEWATER team (Dr Santosh Gaihre and Dr Samuel Ginja) from Ulster University visited the Dominican College in Portstewart (DCP) to raise awareness of the worldwide issue of unclean water.

Speaking to a group of students ranging from Year 8 to Year 14 at the DCP Annual Health Fair, Dr Snelling explored that even when water looks clean, it may still contain small pathogens, which can cause illness. Diseases caused by dirty water can be down to a range of pathogenic microorganisms, from bacteria such as Vibrio cholerae, viruses like rotavirus and even the protozoan microorganisms Cryptosporidium and Giardia.

Using hygiene kits in the session allowed students to learn how important proper hand washing techniques are for prevention of disease. Students had the opportunity to see microorganisms such as Escherichia coli, using a microscope and enthusiastically matched these real-life microbes with their cartoon counterparts. The students also got hands-on engineering experience, building low-cost water filtration devices to clean dirty water. Through these varied activities, students learnt about the importance of clean water and how contaminated water impacts global health every day.

This session allowed Dr Snelling and the SAFEWATER team to raise awareness of the important role microbiology plays in improving global health, through detection and monitoring of pathogens that contaminate drinking water around the globe. Outreach such as this emphasises the importance of teamwork and communication, and that scientists must work alongside people from other disciplines, such as engineers, public health workers and behavioural scientists. Students at DCP had the opportunity to learn how water treatment devices need to be both effective and inexpensive to be used by rural communities. Having low cost devices in developing countries is vital, as almost half of the world’s population live on less than £2 per day. Awareness of harmless microbes was also discussed with the students. They learnt that because of our own microbiomes, we cannot survive without microbes and how many of our industries rely on these ‘good’ microorganisms.

Students thoroughly enjoyed the practical, hands-on aspects of building water filters and using the hand hygiene kits. It was an exciting and rewarding day for both students and staff to participate in the DCP Annual Health Fair to raise awareness about microbiology, and how vital clean water is for global health.

For more information and updates, follow SAFEWATER on Twitter (@GCRF_Twitter) and see their website online (

SAFEWATER is funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Research Councils UK Collective Fund, under Agreement Reference EP/P032427/1.