The UN estimates that, by 2050, one in four people will live in a country with shortages of fresh water. As it is now, nearly 2 billion people use water sources that are contaminated with fecal matter. The situation is dire: More children die from diarrheal diseases than higher-profile illnesses such as malaria.

More than 80 percent of these deaths are attributable to unsafe water, which also contributes to stunted growth, malnutrition, and decreases in education or, for workers, productivity. Whether due to untreated water or lack of access to a latrine, poor sanitation impacts a country in more than just public health; it is also a detriment to a nation’s economy and continued development. Despite this, sanitation guidelines still reference a 1983 publication, missing out on 30 years of research in water pathogens and treatment.  

To address these issues, Heather Murphy, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, will work with stakeholders in Uganda and India to improve sanitation conditions as part of a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the first such grant received by the College of Public Health.

Led by Joan Rose at Michigan State University (MSU), the project builds off the Global Water Pathogen Project, a collaboration led by Rose and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The GWPP involves more than 200 researchers around the world who are collecting and compiling data on water pathogens in order to develop technology, tools, and information to improve sanitation worldwide. Their findings were compiled into an open-access online knowledge base and will be printed in multilingual publications from UNESCO. 

“Roughly 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to improved sanitation,” said Murphy, who traveled to Uganda at the end of June to begin implementing the GWPP’s findings. “They don’t have access to a toilet or a latrine, which has consequences on safe drinking water and environments. These issues aren’t often talked about, but they’re preventable.”

Murphy’s work abroad is part of the GWPP’s Water Pathogen Knowledge to Practice (Water-K2P) project, the phase of the GWPP that seeks to inform local decisionmakers and water and safety planners about the updated pathogen data and information. In both Uganda and India, she and her colleagues from San Diego State University, MSU, Wageningen University and a team of stakeholders on the ground (including the Ugandan National Water and Sewerage Corporation) will explore how they can best apply the information gathered from the GWPP to inform sanitation policy, guidelines and practices. 

In Kampala, Uganda, less than 10 percent of the population has access to a sewer system, and many people in rural areas still resort to open defecation. Murphy and her team will hold workshops with various stakeholders who focus on sewage and public health to train them on the updated sanitation knowledge generated by the GWPP. They hope to create a series of tools that those stakeholders can use, including a mobile local safe sanitation app for smartphones and visualization tools that can map areas with poor sanitation. In July, they finished the first series of workshops in Kampala.

After two years of work in Uganda, they will shift their focus to India, where they will test whether these tools can easily transfer between countries.

“We’re hoping that the project provides a foundation for how you can translate scientific knowledge from one country to another,” said Murphy. “We’ve made it available, but now we’re trying to make it accessible and usable.”