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Global Water Pathogens Project Receives Gates Foundation Award

Joan Rose

The Global Water Pathogens Project, or GWPP, a joint effort through Michigan State University and the International Hydrological Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO will be supported in part by a new three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations has defined “access to water and sanitation for all” as a critical goal. The World Health Organization reported in 2017 that 2.1 billion people don’t have access to safely managed water. Dozens of countries around the world are searching for new methods of treating wastewater, but they need help.

The first steps of the GWPP commenced in 2004, led by Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at MSU, and Blanca Jiménez Cisneros, the director of the Division of Water Services at UNESCO. They sought to update the book, “Sanitation and Disease: Health Aspects of Excreta and Wastewater Management.” Although the original text was published in 1983, it remains the industry standard for guidance on sanitation practices to protect public health and control pathogens.

“I have grown up professionally using this book as an invaluable resource,” said Rose, the 2016 recipient of the Stockholm Water Prize, the world’s most prestigious water award. “But with the knowledge gained over the past 30-plus years, we saw this as a tremendous opportunity to provide needed updates.”

With initial funding, Rose and her team brought on more than 140 experts who have authored articles and compiled data for the creation of a website, www.waterpathogens.org. This takes the place of a book and allows for regular updates to content. The website includes information on four classes of pathogens: bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and helminths (parasitic worms).

New funding from the Gates Foundation will allow Rose to move from data collection and publication toward providing actionable recommendations and tools for pathogen removal.

“We know quite a bit about hundreds of different pathogens,” Rose said. “Our goal is to reduce illness and mortality linked to water-related diseases. To do that, we need to have boots on the ground at the country level to work with national governments, where many of these sanitation decisions are made.”

The first two years of the Gates Foundation grant will see Rose’s team in Uganda, a country in East Africa where Rose has established connections with a group from the water resources authority. She is also working with a postdoctoral researcher and students in the country who will identify gaps in data on where wastewater is going and what impact it has on rivers and water basins.

“We want to try different approaches to treating wastewater, but first we have to understand the systems currently in place,” Rose said. “Once we determine the efficacy of our methods, we’ll work to expand and scale up the apps, mapping and scenario technology to reach more practitioners. Then it’s about outreach and education, which will require a lot of relationship building and capacity building to really bring the science into practice. The Gates Foundation has been a great partner in that regard.”

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