Tropical team work: ​We're helping a South Pacific community in search of clean water

Our researchers are working with residents on the remote islands of Vanuatu to develop technology which will warn them when when their local water supplies are unsafe to drink

Cyclone Pam in 2015 caused major damage and destruction across the islands of Vanuatu, leaving thousands of residents without drinking water.

Research is underway at York into technology which could help a remote South Pacific community access clean drinking water.

The project is focused on the islands of Vanuatu, an archipelago of over 80 volcanic islands lying 1,750 kilometres off the coast of northern Australia.

The islands are prone to drought and cyclones and there is only limited public water supplies leaving over 5,000 householders reliant on unimproved river, lake or spring water.

Our researchers are working with Oxfam and local communities on the islands to co-design and test sensors which could warn residents when their untreated supplies are infected with bacteria, allowing the community to switch to other supplies, or treat their water before they use it.

Global Challenges Research Fund

The three-year project is one of the first major investments by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from the Global Challenges Research Fund.

The work aims to tackle ill health, particularly among young children, caused by the effects of drinking contaminated water.

Dr Steve Johnson from our School of Physics, Engineering and Technology says the technology under development is not entirely new - but the research is breaking new ground in the way it involves the local community in decisions about the possible solutions currently taking shape in the labs at York.

Dr Johnson explains: “What often happens in these situations is that scientists develop a solution and it is imposed on a community without any real thought given to how it will be used or if it really meets their needs. Instead, we have placed the people of Vanuatu at the centre of the decision-making process.”

“We have already visited the islands twice to hold meetings with the community,” explained Dr Johnson. “We wanted to understand the challenges of accessing clean water from the community perspective as well as to begin to explore logistical issues like how the sensors would be powered, stored and maintained. We also wanted to understand if it is better to have one sensor on a central supply, or a larger number of smaller sensors distributed around the community.”

Watch this video to find out more about our research in Vanuatu

The approach of the York team draws on the expertise of Dr Jonathan Ensor, a social scientist in the Stockholm Environment Institute at York, who focuses on working with developing country communities to support their involvement in local development and environment management.

Dr Ensor emphasised the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to technology development: “If a technology is to have the impact we hope for, we need to understand how it would fit with the culture, infrastructure and social organisation of the community.

“For example, we need to know who would be responsible for using and maintaining the sensors, and how the test results would be communicated locally. This means that local decision-making processes have to be understood and developed in tandem with the technical design process.”

Without this “richness” of information, there is a danger of developing a solution that is not fit for purpose or only helps a minority of people within the community, says Dr Johnson.

A novel approach

“This type of participatory technology development is a surprisingly novel approach. As a scientist, I’m massively out of the comfort zone of my lab, but I’m convinced that having the community involved at every stage of the development process is critical to the success of this project.”

Drawing on information from Vanuatu residents, our scientists are currently exploring three different types of sensor, each with varying degrees of complexity and ease of use. Oxfam will also send regular samples from local water supplies back to York so the team can build a picture of seasonal variations in water quality.

On-site trials of the different technologies will point to the most suitable solution which the team will develop into a prototype. Then the search begins for large-scale manufacturers.

The team think the technology could be applied in other countries. They also hope their community engagement work will provide a model for other scientists involved in similar technology development projects.

Different world views

Dr Johnson explains: “In this project we’ve got social scientists working with physicists, biologists, economists, engineers, plus NGOs and the local community – these groups all have very different world views and they have to come together to agree on a solution.

“It’s a challenging way to work but it’s incredibly rewarding and without this approach, the project would not be a success.”​

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​...having the community involved at every stage of the development process is critical to the success of this project​ ...”

Dr Steve Johnson

Our work on Vanuatu is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council through the Global Challenges Research Fund

Featured researcher

Dr Steven Johnson

Research interests in biologically-inspired technologies and hybrid systems

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Featured researcher

Dr Jonathan Ensor

Research interests in participatory  development processes and the potential of participatory planning and social learning processes

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Featured researcher

Professor James Moir

Research interests in bacterial meningitis, nitric oxide biology, microbial respiration and electron transport

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Featured researcher

Dr Cynthia Eglesias

Research interests in the evaluation of healthcare technologies

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Featured researcher

Professor Thomas Krauss

Research interests in understanding and controlling the light-matter interaction in photonic nanostructures

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