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In Pictures: Tackling contaminated waters in Vanuatu

Posted on 4 November 2016

In the tropical climate of the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, rural communities are coming to terms with one of the biggest natural disasters in its history. Cyclones are not uncommon to the region, but Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit the island in 2015, resulted in unprecedented damage and injuries.

It also highlighted an issue that communities have been tackling for some years; where to source clean water. At present in Vanuatu, over 5,000 households depend on unimproved river, lake or spring water. The situation grew worse following Cyclone Pam, when half the population was without clean drinking water for one month after water and sanitation infrastructure was destroyed.

A team from the University of York’s Department of Electronic Engineering, Department of Biology, and the Stockholm Environment Institute at York (SEI-Y) visited the rural village of Epau on the island of Efate, in collaboration with Oxfam in Vanuatu, to work with the community on the development of sensor technologies that could be used by local people to help make life-saving decisions about contaminated water supplies.

Dr Steve Johnson from the University’s Department of Electronic Engineering discusses the first exploratory visit the island: 

“As researchers in future technologies, the hard work often starts and ends in the laboratory without any first-hand experience of the challenges communities in different parts of the world face or how they will access the technology to make a real difference to people’s lives.  We wanted to take a different approach, one that embeds communities in the process of technology development from the outset, in order to co-design technology that meets the community needs, skills and environment.”

“We are focussing on technology that helps improve access to clean water, which remains a significant problem across the world, leading to poor health, particularly amongst children. The problems are particularly acute in Vanuatu. This is partly because of the geographical isolation of the many rural communities that are spread across the country’s 80 remote islands. Vanuatu also has a high susceptibility to natural disasters, including tropical cyclones.” 

"Supported by Oxfam team member, Georgina Bule (pictured here using the community tap system that was installed after the 2015 cyclone), our starting point was to meet with the community to learn from their experiences and problems in accessing clean water.  The community clearly understand the problems, for example they recently put a stop to a company logging in the hills above the village, because they discovered it was making river water dirty after periods of heavy rain.  We were also told that cattle were grazed around their water catchment areas, leading to contamination of their water supplies.”

“Due to concerns about the cleanliness and safety of their piped water system, the community has become reliant on rainwater that they collect in tanks, but the island suffers with long periods of drought, particularly during El Niño weather events, making it difficult to get enough clean water from seasonal rain.”

“During the pilot stage of this project we held workshops with the Oxfam team and with members of the community most closely associated with managing their water supplies. These workshops will be rolled out across all members of the community in the coming months.  The aim of these workshops is to understand how and where the community gather water, what problems they encounter and to co-design the ideal technology that would enable the community to test the safety of their water.” 

‌“Alongside our research we are each keeping a diary to record our personal experiences of working on the island, but also our observations on developing technologies in a truly collaborative way.  The process of creating technologies, that are fit for purpose, with the people that are ultimately going to use them, is something that hasn’t been attempted at this scale before, so we hope to be able to share this experience with other research groups looking at other nations with similar challenges.”

Notes to editors:

The research is supported by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

Follow the project on Instagram @sensorsfordevelopment