Health and wellbeing though universal WASH services

WASH diagram

This community of practice is a group of researchers from the environmental, engineering and social sciences who are tackling the challenges of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in a rapidly changing global climate.

The big challenges that we are addressing are:

  • Improving rural water supply, focusing on water security and seasonal impacts of supply. Many rural communities in semi-arid areas experience highly seasonal rainfall which is mostly lost as run-off. As the dry season progresses, their water sources dry up and communities have to travel further to collect water which often has poor quality. By retaining water and encouraging aquifer recharge, water sources can remain sustainable throughout the dry season. We are seeking to understand the water balance and quality implications of these systems.
  • Scaling safe urban sanitation, focusing on how to reach city-wide inclusive sanitation. The scope of research includes the institutional framework, technologies and business models. In many dense urban environments, there is no sewage infrastructure and the management of non-sewered sanitation is inadequate. We need to answer the wider questions of whether advanced technology for on-site sanitation can be appropriate in these settings and on the roles and responsibilities of all actors; public, private and third sector.

These challenges are exacerbated by climate change, which has serious implications for the livelihoods of the global poor, particularly affecting their water security and increasing health risks. Communities are already innovating and adapting, but these actions can be poorly coordinated. Urbanisation is changing the way that services need to be delivered. Dense environments mean that at least some centralisation is required, but service providers are not able to keep pace with the rapid rate of urban growth. Interventions can have a wide reaching impact. New and emerging health risks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have highlighted how essential it is to understand hygiene behaviours to prevent and protect human health during infectious disease outbreaks.

We work with project partners to ensure that our projects are relevant and useful for those working on the ground. We partner with industry, other academic institutions, and local and international NGOs to co-design projects, implement research and deliver results. We strive to ensure all stakeholders are involved in research projects from start to finish. Working with project partners encourages cross-disciplinary learning for all parties involved and promotes diversity within our research and practice.

Our areas of work

Urban sanitation

In many dense urban environments, there is no sewage infrastructure and the management of on-site sanitation is inadequate. We are particularly interested in the potential for container-based sanitation, where small cartridges of waste are collected weekly from households. As this approach scales up, it will have impacts on people’s wellbeing, institutions and other resources, and we are seeking to understand these impacts.

Sustainable groundwater

Groundwater accounts for 30% of Earth’s freshwater resources. It collects under the Earth’s surface, filling porous spaces in soil, rocks and sediments. We drill into these spaces to access the water for domestic, agricultural and industrial water supplies. Groundwater is replenished by rain and snow melts and is becoming more and more important for regions experiencing water scarcity as surface waters dry up. This said, it is a finite resource that needs sustainable and effective management which can be improved through research, policy and developing technical capacity.

Many rural communities in semi-arid areas experience highly seasonal rainfall which is mostly lost as run-off. As the dry season progresses their water sources dry up and they have to travel further to collect water which often has poor water quality. By retaining water and encouraging aquifer recharge, water sources can remain sustainable throughout the dry season. We are seeking to understand the water balance and quality implications of these systems.

Current research is focussing on groundwater vulnerability in coastal and dry-land regions. We are interested in assessing both the physical and social systems to improve water security for rural and rapidly growing communities by influencing policy and decision making.

Improving the institutional functioning of the sector

The sustainable provision of water and sanitation services require effective institutional systems that facilitate ongoing service delivery, management and financing at appropriate scales. We are seeking to better understand the characteristics of such systems, and to examine how and why they may emerge in particular operating contexts. Through working with utilities establishing new systems for non-sewered sanitation we are trying to understand the drivers and barriers at the institutional level for delivery of safe sanitation services.   

Reducing exposure to faecal pathogens

The sanitation development imperative is predicated in part upon the rational hypothesis that a safely managed sanitation system will substantially reduce exposure to human faecal pathogens and therefore will reduce excreta-related disease. In practice, quantifiable health impact resulting from sanitation interventions is elusive, probably because of incomplete achievement of a hygienic living environment in most low income community settings, in particular where livestock share domestic space. We are interested in the development of new, practical tools and products which will, at a household level, help mothers keep their children healthy. At a higher level, we are interested in developing new approaches which use readily-available spatial information to map faecal flows and identify information that will help planners and decision-makers with the identification of hot spots of faecal contamination in neighbourhoods as a precursor to prioritised decision making.

Using fundamental research to inform development of new and existing water and sanitation technologies

It is important to understand the science of new and existing sanitation and water resource technologies on a fundamental level in order to continue their innovative development. In the soil and water chemistry laboratories at Cranfield University we are applying rigorous scientific testing to analyse how environmental, geogenic and anthropogenic factors influence the underlying biological, chemical and physical processes in sanitation and water systems. Advanced chemical analysis of field samples and exploration of contaminant migration and dissolved-solid interface interactions using column and batch experiments improves our understanding of site characteristics to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of water resource development and contamination management.

Hazard assessment and climate change

We are working to identify and understand the dynamics and effects of rising challenges in the fields of water and sanitation. Emerging contaminants are an increasing area of concern, and we are examining how behaviour and practice of water users influence exposure to emerging contaminants, and how these behaviours affect our ability to mitigate the effects of said exposure. Climate change also poses new challenges of particular interest within the WASH community, because of the increased risk of droughts and floods, both of which dramatically impact water quality, safety and availability. These issues of water security have serious implications for the livelihoods of rural subsistence farmers, and we are mapping vulnerabilities and innovative pathways of water use among households to improve the resilience of communities to climate risk. Our work focuses on developing novel methods and conceptual frameworks for assessing environmental sustainability and resilience in WASH programmes.

Circular economy

Simply put, the circular economy (CE) is a model of production where materials follow cycles of repeated use, in comparison to the linear economy where materials are extracted, used once, and become waste. The CE has gained momentum in recent years to address issues created by the linear economy - not only waste but also climate change and depletion of soil. However, system-wide changes, including technological innovation, and social and institutional change, are needed for the CE to be realised for sanitation as in other areas.

We have not made full use of the biological cycle (e.g. biomass and food) but have extensively used the technical cycle (e.g. minerals and fossils). We are therefore researching the decision-making processes that would drive more appropriate resource use. Another aspect of our work addresses social perceptions that form a barrier to the uptake of the CE in the water sector. We use institutional theory to better understand the CE’s legitimacy. In practice, this can prompt different stakeholders, such as companies and local authorities, to adopt circular initiatives and promote public outreach and engagement practices. 

Spatial aspects of sanitation

Sanitation service provision in low- and middle-income countries is inherently unequal, in part due to lack of standard sewage infrastructure and individual management of on-site sanitation. Spatial representation of sanitation services is therefore essential for financial and technical planning. The aim of our work is to address this challenge by using GIS and free and open datasets to understand both faecal mobility and the sanitation services that keep waste safely contained and transported.

Recent publications

The CWSI had been on my radar since I became interested in water treatment during my bachelor's studies, and after my master's I knew I wanted to work in WASH. Being part of the NMT-project allows me to do that on a scale of potentially global impact, while working with people doing all sorts of exciting water-related research.

Jan Hennings, WASH PhD Graduate