July 2nd, 2007 | Published in Google.org
I first got to know google.org while on a team that received one of google.org's first grants for a joint Harvard/UC Berkeley study on cost-effective water investments in developing countries. The Millennium Development Goals call for reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. This goal was adopted in large part because clean water was seen as critical to fighting diarrheal disease, which kills 2 million children annually. Together with my teammates Edward Miguel, Jessica Leino, and Michael Kremer, I've been undertaking field-based research to assess the effectiveness of water quality improvements in western Kenya. There is compelling evidence that provision of piped water and sanitation can substantially reduce child mortality. However, it's expensive, which has led many poor countries to instead provide community-level water infrastructure, such as wells. But somewhat surprisingly, we actually know very little about how well these kind of investments do at reducing the diarrheal disease burden. Our research is intended to provide rigorous evidence on this question.
Our approach measures the impact of spring protection, a process that clears and seals off the source of a spring so that water flows through a pipe rather than seeping from the ground. Naturally-occurring springs are an important source of drinking water in western Kenya, but they're vulnerable to contamination when left unprotected, particularly from human and animal fecal matter. A locally-based non-governmental development organization (NGO) is protecting 200 springs in Busia, Kenya over a four-year span, and they've kindly let us tag along.
Taking E. coli as our fecal indicator bacteria, our preliminary analysis suggests that spring protection leads to large improvements in source water quality. Not all of these improvements translate to improved water quality at home — perhaps 70% — but recontamination during transport and storage may be less of a concern than is sometimes claimed. We're still trying to figure out whether these water quality gains have led to child health improvements; either way, our findings will help us understand the benefits of achieving the water Millennium Development Goal.
I should also mention that I'm now a full-time Googler — funny how life happens! — so stay tuned here for future research updates. In the meantime, feel free to check out this article (PDF) if you're interested in reading more about reducing diarrheal disease in developing countries. If the evaluation of source water quality improvements is more your thing, this article's good too (PDF).