A while ago, I got an OU mass mail from the professor I studied in Uganda with, inviting people to attend OU’s annual water symposium. I’ve been doing some research on water filtration technologies for developing countries, so naturally I saw this as a good opportunity to reconnect with the more social science side of the issue. The event was free and completely open to the public, and included a discussion on global water issues with a panel, as well as the announcement of the OU Water Prize.
The panel included leaders from non-profits, businesses, and academia who work in water, health, and sanitation. Each member gave a short talk on what they’re working on. One of the talks that caught my attention the most talked about what a successful technology for application in developing areas actually entails, and the basic premise was that simple technology is the best technology. While that may seem a little bit obvious, there are so many well-meaning people and organizations that install electric pumps, or other technology that is difficult for locals to repair if it breaks. The technology that the panelist talked about specifically was essentially a sand filter, but arranged in such a way that makes it easy for people to replace the sand. Rather than packing the sand in a vertical column, like we do in the lab, they simply put the sand in a horizontal box, which is much easier to open and re-pack when necessary.
Another interesting point from the panel was the social issues surrounding water technology in the developing world. One of the speakers mentioned an example where teenagers had been destroying the freshly-installed water filter, because it eliminated the time they had spent together away from their families while they were getting water. This isn’t something that happens often, but is an interesting example of the types of social considerations that we most likely would never predict. The same speaker also mentioned that a water filter is much more likely to be maintained well if it is “owned” by one person or family in a village than if it is owned by the community as a whole. I never would have guessed that, but it’s a really important thing to know in order to actually apply any water filtration technology.
Finally, the recipient of the OU Water prize was announced. This year, the winner was Martha Gebeyehu, for her work in improving clean water access in Ethiopia. She’s the training center manager at Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and works to train people in clean water and sanitation technologies. Overall, the water symposium was a really great experience. It was exciting to hear some other work that can be connected to the work I’m currently doing in the lab, and inspiring to hear about the work that Martha Gebeyehu is doing.