Michigan State University Receives $1.6M from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for Global Water Pathogens Research


The Global Water Pathogens Project (GWPP), a joint effort through Michigan State University in East Lansing and the International Hydrological Programme of UNESCO, today announced it has received a three-year, $1.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The new funding will allow Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin chair in water research at Michigan State University, to move from data collection and publication on water quality to actionable recommendations and tools for pathogen removal.

“We know quite a bit about hundreds of different pathogens,” says Rose, who also received the 2016 Stockholm Water Prize, the world’s most prestigious water award. “Our goal is to reduce illness and mortality linked to water-related diseases. To do that, we need to have boots on the ground at the country level to work with national governments, where many of these sanitation decisions are made.”

The first two years of the grant will send Rose’s team to Uganda, where Rose has established connections with a group from the water resources authority. She is also working with a postdoctoral researcher and students in the country who will identify gaps in data on where wastewater is going and what impact it has on rivers and water basins.

“We want to try different approaches to treating wastewater, but first we have to understand the systems currently in place,” says Rose. “Once we determine the efficacy of our methods, we’ll work to expand and scale up the apps, mapping, and scenario technology to reach more practitioners. Then it’s about outreach and education, which will require a lot of relationship building and capacity building to really bring science into practice. The Gates Foundation has been a great partner in that regard.”

Some initial research steps were taken by the GWPP in 2004 and were led by Rose and

Blanca Jiménez Cisneros, the director of the Division of Water Services at UNESCO. The pair wanted to update the book “Sanitation and Disease: Health Aspects of Excreta and Wastewater Management,” which was originally published in 1983 and remains the industry standard for guidance on sanitation practices to protect public health and control pathogens.

“I have grown up professionally using this book as an invaluable resource,” says Rose. “But with the knowledge gained over the past 30-plus years, we saw this as a tremendous opportunity to provide needed updates.”

Initial funding allowed Rose and her team to recruit 140 water experts to contribute articles they wrote and data they compiled for the creation of waterpathogens.org, which takes the place of a book and allows for regular updates. The website includes information on bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and helminths, which are parasitic worms.

In its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations has defined access to water and sanitation as a critical goal. The World Health Organization reported in 2017 that 2.1 billion people don’t have access to safely managed water.

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