Connecting Global Issues

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Water, Health & Development

They may seem far away, but water, sanitation and health (WASH) issues in the developing world have close parallels in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. The evidence was abundantly clear at the 2016 Bay Area WASH Symposium, a knowledge-sharing event hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Symposium speakers such as WHD researcher Laura Kwong presented nuanced insights into how development issues intersect with practices in the United States and elsewhere. Kwong discussed her research comparing children’s exposure to diarrhea in Bangladesh and the U.S. Kwong filmed children in Bangladesh touching and mouthing objects that were potential pathways of exposure that increase diarrheal disease risk, and compared them to rates of touching and mouthing observed in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

Kwong found that Bangladeshi children put their hands and other objects in their mouths much more frequently than U.S. children. Using U.S. data in models to assess exposure is likely to underestimate the exposure experienced by children in low-income countries like Bangladesh. Her work shows that studies in one system can help to inform and refine how sanitation issues are approached in the other.

“There was a great range of research this year, everything from electrochemical treatment of groundwater to a Sesame Street-inspired school hand washing campaign that looked at children as agents of change,” said speaker and attendee, Rebecca Gilsdorf, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

Each year, the event provides a venue for WASH researchers at Bay area organizations—including universities such as Stanford, UC–Berkeley, UC–Davis, and UC-Santa Cruz, along with non-profit organizations, government agencies, and for-profit companies—to share projects and innovations, strike up new collaborations and reinvigorate long-established ones.

“The WASH Symposium created a community that didn’t exist out here before,” said Mimi Jenkins, a professional research engineer at U.C. Davis. “We are away from the core of the nonprofits in the field, which are mostly based in Washington, D.C. The Bay Area WASH creates a counterbalance for us on the West Coast.” 

“Things like this are really important for us to have exposure to the latest and greatest,” said Ranjiv Khush, co-founder and Executive Director of the Aquaya Institute, a local nonprofit working toward universal safe water access. “This is a really critical forum to stay connected with other practitioners in the field.”

Throughout the daylong event, not only did speakers address parallel health and sanitation issues that impact developing countries and developed countries at different scales, some also spoke of ways to innovate specific systems with potentially far reaching applications. For example, William Tarpeh, a Ph.D. in Berkeley’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Program, shared how urine waste is actually an untapped resource, which he has learned how to convert into nitrogen fertilizer in lab experiments.

While Tarpeh and his team are now testing their process in communities in Kenya, managing human waste is a universal issue, and this new treatment could prove as useful here in the U.S. as it may be for countries like Kenya. Perhaps it is sharing ideas like this—which have the potential to mitigate impacts to our environment while improving the human condition—that brings palpable energy to the symposium.

“It is intellectually stimulating, and also provides such a supportive community environment,” said Jenna Davis, professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and faculty head of WHD. “Everyone can come together here and reach out for the support they need. The symposium is at the intersection of research and rigor, but most of all it feels like family.”

In 2017, the symposium will be hosted by Berkeley’s Water Center. For information about how to get involved with the next WASH Symposium, contact Jenna Davis at