Universal, affordable and sustainable access to WaSH is a key public health issue within global development and the focus of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6.
According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, inadequate sanitation alone affects approximately 40% of the world’s population – 2.5 billion people. It contributes to an estimated 700,000 child deaths every year due to diarrhea, while a lack of WaSH facilities can also impose an unusual burden on women and reduce work productivity.
Dr Jacqueline Thomas, from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering, aims to reduce these figures through her research into climate-resilient sanitation systems, particularly within developing countries across Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific as well as remote indigenous communities here in Australia.
"Improving access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene is critical to protecting human health as well as the environment," says Dr Thomas, who leads the Faculty of Engineering and IT’s humanitarian engineering program.
“Poor sanitation comes from the unsafe containment and ineffective treatment of human waste, and causes disease as well as environmental degradation. It also represents a lost opportunity for nutrient and energy recovery.
“In many developing countries, rapid urbanisation has led to large unplanned and un-serviced areas in which human faecal waste, greywater and solid waste are not safely treated but directly discharged into the environment.”
Dr Thomas explains that this results in widespread disease as well as contamination of waterways. Further, it represents a lost opportunity to process this waste to produce, for example, biogas for cooking or bio-solids for fertiliser.
"The aim of my research is to design, implement and evaluate integrated, sustainable, climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene systems that can serve the world's most vulnerable rural and urban communities," says Thomas.
Her achievements to date have included leading a project on the development of a rice husk-fired furnace to sterilise human waste and recapture nutrients and energy, creating safe biosolids for agricultural reuse. Through pyrolysis of dried faecal sludge, biochar brickets can be produced to replace the use of charcoal from virgin forests.
The whole system can be operated by local entrepreneurs and will hopefully motivate significant up-take of ecologically sound sanitation.
Prior to joining the University, Dr Thomas established a WaSH research group during her four-year residency at Ifakara Health Institute, a non-government organisation (NGO) based in Tanzania.
Dr Thomas still works as an external collaborator with the Ifakara Health Institute, where she serves as the chief investigator on two WaSH projects funded by the UK’s Department for International Development.
The academic recently returned from a one-month fieldwork trip to the East African country, collaborating with local researchers and technicians to explore appropriate WaSH methods for water supply within local areas.
“I have been travelling to Tanzania to work with my collaborators for several years and to date our research has attracted more than $US1 million for WaSH funding," says Dr Thomas.
“The recent fieldwork trip to Tanzania provided me the opportunity to examine the use of shallow open wells as a source of water supply by local communities within three different climatic regions. The regions were drought impacted (Kondoa), flood impacted (Kilombero) and extreme weather events impacted (Dar es Salaam).”
The project which was implemented by the World Health Organisation (WHO), saw over 10,000 water quality samples taken over a period of 18 months and modelled the results to climate variability.
“This study provides important recommendations on which climate resilient water sources the Tanzanian government should invest in," says Dr Thomas.
“In Tanzania, the water supply is typically groundwater and can be easily contaminated by pit latrines. Interventions are a proven means to reduce diarrhoeal disease risk by around a third.
“Our research focuses on the effectiveness of household level water and sanitation interventions that could be brought to scale via market demand.”