Keeping communities safe through water testing
UNICEF is innovating to ensure bacteria test kits work faster and produce more accurate results so people have access to clean water.
Every year, more than 1.5 million people die from diarrhoea – the majority are infants and young children that consumed unsafe drinking water. Without access to clean water sources, water-borne diseases can proliferate and cause severe illness, threatening lives and disrupting children’s access to education.
In Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, the world has set an ambitious target of ensuring clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. However, a major obstacle to achieving this is the protracted global water crisis that has already forced 2 billion people to go without access to clean water.
Working with communities
While governments work to expand access to safe drinking water by improving critical water infrastructure and services, UNICEF supports them at the community level by testing household and public water sources for faecal contamination.
“UNICEF supplies test kits that look at different aspects of water that make it safe, which includes testing for bacteria like E. coli,” says Esther Shaylor, Innovation Specialist at UNICEF Supply Division. “E. coli is used as an indicator for diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid. It is easy to test for in field settings with simple equipment which can identify faecal contamination in drinking water. When it is present, we know there is a problem and we can work with communities to treat the water.”
UNICEF provides equipment to look at different safety aspects of drinking water. Currently, five types of water test kits are supplied to countries for E. coli testing. At present, the kits, which are designed specifically for use where there are no laboratories, produce results in 18-24 hours and work by testing directly for E. coli or other indicators of its presence. Although the kits are life-saving equipment, they are bulky and can be difficult to transport to remote locations, where testing needs are often highest. The tests must also be carried out by trained persons rather than the communities, but Shaylor hopes this will change in the future.
“Ideally, water testing would be carried out by communities so they can continuously monitor their water sources,” says Shaylor. “UNICEF is working with industry on innovation projects to reduce the time it takes for biological water tests to provide results. With a shorter timeframe, we can take faster action to treat water. This will help to prevent serious illness and save lives, particularly among young children, who are the most vulnerable.”
Piloting the next generation of test kit
UNICEF is currently readying to pilot a new type of test which returns results in 8-10 hours. This innovation, spearheaded by UNICEF Supply Division and water test manufacturers, cuts in half the time required to get results of bacteria in water in remote locations. This project may be a significant step towards the development of rapid water tests.
UNICEF is considering using these new tests as part of emergency response efforts around the world where drinking water has been affected. This includes cyclone recovery work in Vanuatu and Malawi, as well as their use in 30 countries that are tackling cholera outbreaks. These advancements will be a major boost to countries tackling potentially fatal water-borne diseases.
“What we’re really aiming for are tests that can be conducted by communities,” says Shaylor. “If tests can produce same-day results, UNICEF and partners can work with communities to find solutions to contamination and develop communications campaigns so that families learn how to keep water safe.”
It is hoped that the evolution of diagnostic tests brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may help in the development of rapid water test kits that would provide results in two hours or less. However, it is early days and work is ongoing to overcome the challenges of testing in remote locations in ways that are easy for communities to use and understand the results. Test kits will also need to be durable to travel to the locations UNICEF works and avoid damage on rough roads or transport by boat.
“Every day, I’m reminded of the luxury of being able to turn on a tap and get clean water from it,” says Shaylor. “But for a quarter of the world’s population, that’s not the case. At UNICEF, we’re making big strides in water testing to help close that gap alongside other water, sanitation and hygiene programmes with governments. I’m hopeful that rapid biological tests will be available soon so that communities are empowered to monitor and manage their own water. That’s what we need to aim for.”