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Indian water tonic

Women in rural India carry home water Women in rural India carry home water gnomeandi / Shutterstock
01 Nov
India’s rural water supply is a vast problem for public health officials. If disease outbreaks are to be kept in check, water sources need to be subject to routine monitoring

Enter a research consortium that aims to keep an eye on India’s water system with testing kits that cost just 33 pence each.

Volunteers take home the kits, which consist of a test tube containing material that changes colour when exposed to the E. coli bacteria. Samples are taken and, after overnight incubation, the water turns yellow if safe and purple if not.

The key is aggregating the samples. ‘Individual tests don’t tell us much. But with a thousand, you can estimate what the microbial counts will be in a typical source,’ said Joe Brown, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Environmental Engineering, one of the institutions involved.

Evaluation took place in eight villages near the city of Nagpur. Researchers recruited 1,800 people for the experiment, but at first only a quarter returned samples. ‘Over time, the instructions got simpler and we wound up putting information on the side of the kit,’ said Brown. ‘We got better responses the simpler we got.’ At follow-up meetings, 60 per cent of the distributed kits were returned. Once the results were shared with villagers, repairs could take place to cracked pipes and other sources of contamination.

‘We think this may be a scalable model for environmental monitoring for settings in addition to India,’ Brown added. He hopes the system will go beyond being a technological solution and open discussion in rural areas about infrastructure.

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