Tufts University Logo Engineering

Search  GO >

this site tufts.edu people
 
Tufts University Engineering    
 
Tufts University
Print

Solutions for Success
Daniele Lantagne discusses sustainable water treatment implementation

By Heather Wax

In the world today, there are roughly 800 million people who don't have access to an "improved" water source, like a piped system or protected well, designed to shield the water from microbiological contamination. Hundreds of millions more drink unsafe water even though it comes from a source that is improved. If the water coming from their rivers, springs, or ground is contaminated, and the region lacks the infrastructure needed to provide clean water, what is the alternative? One short-term solution is to treat the water at home.

Assistant Professor Daniele Lantagne specializes in developing, implementing, and evaluating household water treatment projects in developing countries and areas of emergency.

Assistant Professor Daniele Lantagne specializes in developing, implementing, and evaluating household water treatment projects in developing countries and areas of emergency.

There are a variety of ways water can be treated at the household level: There are simple systems, like chlorination or locally made ceramic filters, and there are more complex systems that remove a greater number of the organisms that cause diarrheal disease, but they are also more expensive and harder to use and transport. When resources are limited, is it more impactful to help a few people a lot, or a lot of people a little less? Is it more effective to implement a high-end system that requires significant training and follow-up, or a simpler solution that requires less investment and maintenance, but only removes some of the organisms that cause diarrheal disease? These are the types of questions Daniele Lantagne finds fascinating.

Daniele Lantagne, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, specializes in developing, implementing, and evaluating household water treatment projects in developing countries and areas of emergency. She has applied her knowledge to diverse applications—including engineering design work, helping to make water treatment products more approachable and easier to use, as well as laboratory research looking at how variations in manufacturing and clay can determine the effectiveness of ceramic filters or the dosage of chlorine needed to appropriately treat water. In 2011, she served as the water and sanitation expert on a United Nations panel investigating the origin of the cholera epidemic in Haiti, where she has worked on water projects since 2000. But most of all, she is interested in implementation-based research.

Lantagne travels to places like East Africa, Asia, and Central and South America to conduct field evaluations and surveys, and to watch how, and if, the people who have received a household treatment product are using it to effectively improve their drinking water quality. “Effective use has a whole host of inputs,” she says. “Were they trained effectively? Are they using the product? Do they want to use it? Are they using it every day?”

One of the most important reasons to conduct implementation-based research is that the success rate of a household water treatment technique is not fixed, despite what laboratory research tells us. “There's quite a bit of laboratory research that says a method reduces 99.99 percent of a certain organism, and while I think that research is very critical, actually in the field what matters is what's distributable and implementable, what's usable by the users,” says Lantagne. “For example, in emergency situations what we have consistently found is what the users knew before the emergency is what they know how to use—and will use—after the emergency. So it's not a time to come in with a new option and say, ‘Use this to make your water safe.' It's time to come in with an option they were familiar with before. In developing your program, you need to consider user knowledge and the ability to use what you are distributing in a psychologically difficult context.”

In her view, then, there will be no silver bullet for water treatment in developing countries or emergency contexts. “There's quite a few companies that would like to develop a filter that will be distributed everywhere, and I don't actually think in water that that's going to happen. The water quality is too variable. The cultural contexts are too variable. So having a suite of options that can be used, I think that is a much better approach,” she says. “Questions of culture and knowledge and behavior and then cost-effectiveness all play a key role in looking at the issues around scaling up.”

In other words, successful sustainable water treatment implementation at the community level depends on linking research to the specific environment, and then to action. This idea should profoundly shape the way engineers, policymakers, and other experts structure their plans and projects, Lantagne believes, and it is an approach very much in line with that of Tufts School of Engineering.

"Daniele's expertise lies at the intersection of environmental engineering and public health," says Professor Kurt Pennell, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "Her research will directly support two strategic focus areas of the school, engineering for human health and engineering for sustainability, and are closely allied with activities of the Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) graduate program and Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE)."

Heather Wax is a science writer living in Brookline. She has written for Scientific American, Ode, The Boston Globe, and MIT's Technology Review, among other publications.

[posted September 28, 2012]