Saving Energy, Saving Lives: World Water Day 2014

Posted on by Jennifer Murphy, PhD, Microbiologist and Ciara O’Reilly, PhD, Epidemiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch


Photo of a woman washing her clothes

Water is easy to take for granted until…you don’t have enough of it.

Ciara O’Reilly, PhD, Epidemiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch
Ciara O’Reilly, PhD, Epidemiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch
Jennifer Murphy, PhD, Microbiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch
Jennifer Murphy, PhD, Microbiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch

But the simple and indisputable fact is this: a sufficient supply of clean water is a necessity for life and an essential ingredient in the battle against disease.

That’s why as populations grow and demands for water increase the focus on how it’s used and conserved become more important than ever before. And it’s why CDC is working in various ways to find ways of ensuring clean water and using it wisely.

It’s the reason that this year, on World Water Day, March 22, the theme of Water and Energy is more than just a throw-away phrase.

Producing energy, after all, requires a lot of water. One of the best ways to conserve water is to conserve energy. And like water itself, the question of how to balance all the competing demands for water and conserve energy at the same time seeps in many directions.

Sanitation is one. As we continue working to increase sustainable access to basic sanitation especially in under-developed countries, we face the challenge of having to collect and treat large quantities of human waste. Conventional centralized waste treatment systems are out of the question. They are far too expensive to build and operate.

One type of solar concentrator used to treat waste
One type of solar concentrator used to treat waste

Solar power, however, is a free, renewable and abundant resource. Today solar energy is an inexpensive and innovative option for treating waste that is becoming more widespread and accepted.

The technology concentrates the heat of solar energy reflected from specially designed surfaces to heat-treat fecal waste so it can be safely discarded or potentially repurposed for use as fertilizer or fuel. Devising sustainable, effective and low-cost methods for treating waste are critical components of a holistic waste management system. The benefit to public health is immense since a well-functioning system can limit and even prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever. Those diseases, as well as others spread through the fecal-oral route, are among the primary causes of illness and death in the developing world. The threat is particularly large in crowded refugee camps where adequate sanitation infrastructure is scarce. These are just a few of the reasons CDC is actively involved in efforts to find innovative ways to treat waste.

With an award from CDC’s Innovation Fund, for example, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch partnered with CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, CDC Kenya, and the non-governmental organization Sanivation to pilot a small-scale solar sanitation system in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya which houses more than 100,000 refugees.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)/CDC laboratory staff in Kibera, Nairobi received training and have completed initial laboratory work assessing the effectiveness of solar sanitation in treating human waste in the local setting.

Kakuma refugee camp
Kakuma refugee camp

Under the right conditions, solar sanitation substantially reduced the amount of a fecal indicator bacterium, E. coli, in treated waste, proving that this is a promising concept.

Field teams are currently leading focus group discussions with Kakuma refugee camp residents and staff that could lead to better designs of latrines, and modification to the novel solar sanitation system. At the same time, an engineering team from the Georgia Institute of Technology is working to develop new and improved latrine designs that will encourage residents to use latrines rather than open defecation. A pilot-scale test of this new and innovative fecal sludge management system, including the energy-conserving solar treatment of waste, will provide information on the safety, affordability, and sustainability of this option for the residents of Kakuma refugee camp.

This is one small step to think about on World Water Day that could improve water quality by ensuring waste is appropriately managed, and quality of life while decreasing energy use and disease transmission.

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Posted on by Jennifer Murphy, PhD, Microbiologist and Ciara O’Reilly, PhD, Epidemiologist, CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention BranchTags , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments on “Saving Energy, Saving Lives: World Water Day 2014”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Clean water is a right, not a privilege. However, many people throughout the world do not have access to a reliable source of fresh water. World Water Day serves as a reminder to all of us that, while we may enjoy an abundance of clean water in the West, millions of others across the globe must fight to find a small trickle. Please visit our blog on World Water Day to learn more:

    Limiting our water and electricity consumption is already vital and will become crucial in the near future. The struggle of organizations and the campaign of governments and corporation will not be enough until every household becomes aware and starts living according to some reasonable limitations. Switching off unnecessary items, making sure there are no water leaks, installing LED lights, using solar energy are just some of the hundreds of things a normal family is capable of doing to make the world a better place for all.

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Page last reviewed: June 17, 2015
Page last updated: June 17, 2015
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