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The Potability Problem

As most people learned at a young age, human life cannot exist without water. For one of every six people in the world – about 1 billion – the fundamental resource of clean water is not readily available, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).

To remedy this crisis, the U.N. is working to bring sanitary drinking water to underdeveloped communities, and members of the USF community are taking part in the effort.

Last Saturday was designated by the U.N. as World Water Day, “an international day of observance and action to draw attention to the plight of those without access to safe drinking water,” according to

It may be difficult for most Americans to believe that there is a clean water crisis: the average American uses between 100 and 176 gallons of water each day. The average African family, however, uses only about five gallons a day, which borders on the minimum amount necessary to survive, the Web site reported.

To address this discrepancy, the U.N. wants to reduce – by half – the number of people who do not have access to a safe, sustainable source of drinking water. This was included in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDG), available at

“Sanitation is a fundamental stepping stone for better health,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, at a World Water Day event in Geneva on March 20. “An estimated 40 percent of the world’s population lives without one of the basic amenities of modern life: a toilet. This means that 2.6 billion people are forced to relieve themselves in open spaces – in fields, forests, bushes, water bodies or a patch of mud. This is a degrading way of life, and this is a form of environmental degradation with direct and dramatic consequences for health.”

For some USF students and faculty, this is not just someone else’s problem. The organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at USF is working in collaboration with James Danoff-Burg of Columbia University through USF’s Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions on a project to bring a sanitary and sustainable water source to a community in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s all about finding the right partnerships,” said EWB adviser Daniel Yeh, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a research fellow with the Patel Center. “You can’t do everything alone.”

Miramar, the focus community, is a municipality of Miches in El Seibo, the second poorest province in the Dominican Republic. The EWB has been working for the past several months to become acquainted with the community by studying documents and photos, Yeh said. The first primary assessment trip is scheduled for April 10.

Through its secondary research, the group discovered that the 500 residents of Miramar live uphill from a single, contaminated water source – a dilapidated water tower.

“The tower is really old and has leaks,” said Jamie Trahan, president of EWB. “The people go to the tower and scoop up water from the streets. It comes directly from the river, unfiltered, which is unsanitary because there is a lot of human waste and industrial and agricultural runoff going straight into the water supply.”

Because water-related diseases are the leading cause of death and illness in the world, the EWB, “aims to bring a clean and sustainable source of drinking water to a community that doesn’t have it, so that the people can lead healthier lives,” EWB member David Starman said.

“The EWB’s motto is ‘building a better world, one community at a time,'” Trahan said. “Water and sanitation are a big deal right now. If we fix the sanitation problem, there may not be so many health issues.”

The local efforts to solve a global problem do not stop at the EWB. A research group was formed through Project Thrust, an element of the graduate programs’ initiative to create more interdisciplinary research efforts. Delcie Durham, associate provost and dean of the graduate school, pulled together the funding for the project from the state and provost.

“One thrust that I created was Sustainable Healthy Communities, with a focus on water and sanitation,” Durham said. “It was created with the advice and consent of all the deans because it crossed almost all of the colleges here, in terms of all research activities that were associated with water.

“The idea of multidisciplinary research is nothing new, but we just wanted to help promote it and bring more graduate students into it,” Durham said.

The Sustainable Healthy Communities research group started last fall and directly works to help achieve the U.N. MDG. It’s composed of students and faculty from anthropology, engineering and public health who are looking for viable technological solutions to solve water and sanitation issues in developing countries, said Elizabeth Churchill, a graduate student in anthropology and public health.

“The group is focusing on the development of critical technologies in water and wastewater treatment,” said Ligia Cruz, research group member and Ph.D. student in the College of Public Health. “For example, (we are looking at) the use of natural material – cactus mucilage – for water purification in low-income communities, the evaluation of solar latrines for sanitation improvement and the development of ecological membranes for water and wastewater filtration.”

At USF there is an increasing local awareness of this global issue. For those involved with these groups, it is important to be part of the solution.

“Both groups are working toward the MDG at different angles,” Starman said. “World Water Day is U.N.’s effort to publicize the goal and get awareness out there.”

A Switzerland-based company created a product called the LifeStraw, shown at top of page, a portable way to purify and sanitize nearly any water source to make it potable, according to Features include:    •  Kills and removes 98.7% of waterborne viruses.   •  Removes particles down to 15 microns.   •  Requires no electrical power or spare parts for the lifetime of the straw.   •  Easy to mass-distribute in areas where drinking water is contaminated.