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According to the United Nations, 3 in 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and each day nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. Ulster University’s Safewater project is tackling this global challenge with the development of innovative smart devices to quickly tell if water is safe to drink.

In the UK drinking water quality is monitored on a routine basis, and one of the key indicators of safety is the absence of faecal contamination. Samples are sent to a microbiological laboratory and analysis can take 24 to 48 hours before faecal contamination is confirmed. If faecal indicators are detected, the public in that supply area are notified and told to boil their water or to drink bottled water.

In the Global South, in Low -to-Middle-Income countries, this is not the case.  Due to economic circumstances, lack of skilled staff and labs, and lack of infrastructure, water quality may be only intermittently determined, or sometimes not at all.  Ulster University’s transdisciplinary research project SAFEWATER aims to change this through the use of new technologies.

SAFEWATER is developing autonomous Internet of Things (IoT) devices that can rapidly determine microbiological water quality in remote locations without the need for highly skilled staff or specific microbiology laboratories. The devices have been tested in rural Colombia and Mexico with very positive results. Professor Tony Byrne, School of Engineering, Ulster University leads the project. He explained how the technology works:

“The IoT prototype devices are no bigger than a coffee cup. The user simply adds the water to the device and closes the lid. Within a matter of hours the device notifies the user of a positive or negative result for faecal contamination, but also communicates via the cloud to inform researchers of the information including position, time, and level of contamination. The community can then take steps to make their water safe.”

The development of robust IoT devices for drinking water testing is a major step forward in the fight against waterborne disease, and for surveillance of outbreaks. These devices can also be deployed for water quality monitoring in emergency or disaster situations where access to safe water is an immediate concern.

The GCRF funded SAFEWATER research project combines scientific research and innovative technologies with culture, education and prevention strategies. Ulster University has partnered with the University of Medellin Colombia and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and two NGOs working with rural communities, CTA  in Colombia and Cantaro Azul in Mexico, to address the global challenge of safe drinking water.

Professor Byrne continued:

“Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrheal deaths each year (WHO, 2019). Together with our partners in Latin America we are taking a transdisciplinary approach to tackle this global issue. We are combining the expertise of engineers, microbiologists, chemists, nutritionists, and social scientists to develop new technologies and educate and empower communities.”

SAFEWATER is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) UK Research and Innovation, EPSRC Grant Reference EP/P032427/1.

Find out more about SAFEWATER: