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Filthy jugs wash away clean water efforts: study


December 23, 2011
By The Canadian Press

December 23, 2011, Prince George, B.C. – Providing clean water in the world's developing nations may be as much about education as it is about turning on a tap.

New research out of the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) finds efforts to provide reliable drinking water to some of the world's most impoverished nations is being jeopardized by unsafe storage practices.

Preliminary results of a study conducted by UNBC professor Chris Opio indicate that clean well water – after transportation and storage – becomes nearly two-and-a-half times dirtier than water drawn from a contaminated well.

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"People are using clay pots and plastic jerry cans that are so dirty that they would ruin even the cleanest water," said Opio, a professor of ecosystem science and management. "This is a threat to the efforts of many NGOs and charities that dig wells in these countries."

Opio began examining stored water for E-coli, bacteria, and dioxins in Uganda in July 2011.

"Our tests show that clean water from donated wells is ruined due to high rates of E-coli and fecal coliforms found first in the unclean jerry cans that are used for water transportation. The water is tainted even more during storage in unwashed clay pots," said Opio, who grew up in Uganda.

"We're also going to be testing samples of the water for Bispheno-A (BPA) at UNBC's labs in the coming months." In 2010, Canada was the first country to declare BPA a toxic chemical.

Opio established a charity – the Northern Uganda Development Foundation (NUDF) – in 2007 with UNBC employee Tony Donovan, in part to dig wells and provide fresh, clean drinking water for Ugandans.

To date, 42 wells have been dug, providing water to more than 50,000 people in that East African country.

"We know our wells produce good water because we've tested them," said Opio, who has been a professor at UNBC since 1995. "However, now we've discovered that it's the storage that is ruining the water. This results in terrible disease and parasitism."

Opio said water fouled by E-coli and fecal coliform can be made safe by boiling.

"People have been storing water in clay pots in Africa for thousands of years and, with thorough cleaning, it's a good, safe method."

"This research indicates that NGOs and governments in developing countries need to go further than just building wells. We must also educate people about proper storage and cleaning methods."

Opio's research was recently selected for the Africa Initiative Grant by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). It was reviewed by a panel comprised of researchers from leading universities including Harvard and Princeton in the United States.

"Dr. Opio presented a cutting-edge research proposal. The nexus between water and food security is extremely important, but under-researched," said Thomas Tieku, lead researcher of CIGI's Africa Initiative and a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto.

"The entire Africa Initiative team is proud to be supporting research that we think will shed new insights and shape important debates in different settings in Africa in the coming years."

The complete results of Opio's study will be known in early 2012.