Mona Dai: Treating Contaminated Drinking Water in Uganda

NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

  • Major: Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Grand Challenge: Providing Access to Clean Water
  • GC Advisor: Dr. David Schaad
  • Project Title: Introducing Effective Portable Water Purification to Rural Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Mona Dai

As part of the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program, I am focusing on the challenge of providing clean drinking water access to all. My research project focuses specifically on the impact of using ceramic water filters (CWF) to treat contaminated drinking water in Uganda.

Ceramic water filters are point-of-use water treatment systems that, while efficient, simple and economic, are quite slow. My goal last semester was to design a new CWF type with a faster flow rate, which I tested using a small prototype I made following current methods and materials practiced by factories in countries such as South Africa and Nicaragua. I traveled to Uganda to research the depth of the drinking water problem and how useful an innovation such as a CWF could be. In the village of Kaihura, I sampled water sources and tested them for bacteria, collected data on the severity of waterborne diseases and observed the installation of a new well in the community—the most popular water solution used by the government and NGOs. The trip was eye-opening.

"Meeting these people, I knew I was needed. I knew I could potentially have the solution to improving their lives and that made me realize what enormous weight lies behind being an engineer."

The Grand Challenge experience has helped me better understand both the gravity of the drinking water challenge as well as the frustration inherent to making change. My prototype was both slow and tiring; we pounded clay powder, combined and kneaded it by hand, and designed our own hand press and shaped our filter with no mechanical parts. Working in Uganda, I felt frustration due to the difference in education and health. Some villages had only one shallow drinking water source for over 20 families. Since it could take years to receive a well, the people drank their water unboiled despite warnings. The community did not understand “dirty” as tiny, wiggling bacteria invisible to the human eye. They only knew the word “dirty” in the sense of visible dust or grime.

At the same time, they were eager to learn about new technology. They asked for new ideas that could help make their water better because they knew something was wrong with the quality. Meeting these people, I knew I was needed. I knew I could potentially have the solution to improving their lives and that made me realize what enormous weight lies behind being an engineer. I have the ability to alter how people live their lives and I am excited to be a part of that.