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Agency brings water solutions to villagers

In developing nations, many sources of drinking water are also used as places for defecation, disposal of trash, bathing, washing vehicles, watering  animals and recreation. E. coli is usually found in this water; the bacteria is associated with typhus, cholera, hepatitis A and diarrhea. Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | May 15, 2013 |

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Who: Patrick Widner, demonstrating water-testing process by examining bacterial content of Davis ponds

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St., Davis

Davisite Patrick Widner cocks his head slightly and, without hesitation, brings a glass of water to his lips.

“Isn’t it nice to never really have to worry about the water you’re drinking?” he asks, as he gulps the last of it down.

You don’t often hear that question, but it’s not unusual considering the perspective Widner has as executive director of International Water and Health Alliances.

The local nonprofit, which Widner co-founded with retired Sacramento State microbiology professor Robert Metcalf, aims to decrease water-borne diseases that plague millions worldwide.

That’s more than 3.6 million people, to be exact, who die each year from water- and hygiene-related causes, according to 2008 data from the World Health Organization. Nearly all of those deaths, 99 percent of them, occur in the developing world; meaning Widner and the vast majority of other Americans can polish off their refreshments without concern.

Founded in 2010, the Davis-based International Water and Health Alliances has developed a means of testing and treating water to improve the health of vulnerable populations.

The organization uses a portable microbiology laboratory, a kit of commercially available tools that can identify the presence of bacteria like E. coli, which causes life-threatening diseases, including typhus, cholera, hepatitis A and diarrhea.

Though the equipment, which comes packed in a gallon-size Ziploc bag, was developed by Metcalf, a microbiology expert, it’s intended to be used by those without any formal education.

On-site water tests

Besides pairing with international organizations to reach this end, both Metcalf and Widner have gone directly to places like Africa and Central America to teach residents how to test their water.

“What our approach is for the 800 million people or more with unsafe drinking water is to bring microbiology out to their communities, and inform them of the basics,” Metcalf explained. “Then, it’s they who will go to the other communities and spread the word.

“The people who can solve the problem of unsafe drinking water are already in the villages. They’re not in the health organizations. And with a simple package of materials, you can activate them to be microbiologically competent enough to do so.”

The people are being taught to interpret the results of the tests, and then learn how to make the contaminated water safe to drink.

“Microbiology is fun, and it’s great to empower them to do it,” Metcalf said enthusiastically. “As my friend in Kenya said, ‘No longer do you have to do three years of graduate school to be a microbiologist; now we can learn it in three hours.’ ”

As soon as the locals hear that E. coli means there’s “mierda” in the water — translated in Spanish to feces (if put politely) — there’s no hesitance to comply with instructions to purify it. Most practically, the water is purified by heating it to 149 degrees Fahrenheit. This can be done with an inexpensive sun-powered cooker (Widner is a former executive director of Solar Cookers International).

Aside from the easy-to-use tests for fecal microbes, the villagers also are taught how to properly store water, despite conditions that aren’t hygienically ideal.

Widner has seen first-hand the sacrifices made by villagers, many of whom have no access to public transportation, to be present for the sessions that would teach them water safety.

“One woman, who was a member of the Lenca community (an Indian group in Honduras), told me that she had left her village early in the morning when it was dark to attend an early morning training,” Widner said. “She told me that she had walked two hours.

“When I expressed admiration for the efforts of this lady, a fellow who came to the same training program and knew her said that she had probably walked closer to four hours, as she lived miles beyond his community and it took him two hours to get there himself.”

Widner will demonstrate the water-testing process at a gathering at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis. He’ll examine the bacterial content of ponds around Davis for demonstration purposes.

Global partnerships

International Water and Health Alliances coordinates with other agencies to accomplish more than what a two-man operation otherwise would allow.

Kenya’s Friends of the Old Development Group joined the project in 2012, and members were trained as representatives to share the water testing practices, resulting in a significant drop in diarrhea and typhoid in the area.

Another partner was a local government, Tanzania’s Municipal Council, which — after providing the testing kits — found that typhoid occurrence had been reduced to six cases from a reported 34 three years prior.

Vittoria Peñalba, resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua, had good things to report from a concerted effort to improve the living conditions of 240 families inhabiting a poor Nicaraguan village.

She had just returned from the village, La Gallina, whose residents were trained in water testing by the Davis nonprofit. They drank daily from a community-shared water source that was believed to be safe, but was replete with E. coli.

“You could find in every family people with different serious illnesses,” Peñalba said. “There was no water that was sanitary. We were able to determine that thanks to the (IWHA) tests. … We started an amazing, community-based project to fix that.”

Now, 800 people now have clean water to drink, she said. Each family did their part in constructing an eight-mile-long filtering system that supplies a working water fountain at every home.

“Having water opens a lot of other possibilities for these families,” Peñalba added, “because they will not have to lose two to three hours a day carrying the little amount of water they could back to their homes.”

The water also may be used to grow gardens for more nourishing meals, and will certainly trickle down to other positive effects. It’s a step toward the local organization’s larger goal of replicating this worldwide.

A long road ahead

But residents of most developing countries still don’t have the equipment, personnel, resources or the know-how to test water and improve the situation themselves. There’s a long road ahead for these locals.

“When you work in a country where a Ministry of Health’s laboratory has responsibility for 600,000 people, even with a big budget, you’re not going to be able to reach everyone,” Widner explained. “You wouldn’t be able to reach a small village like La Gallina.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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