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Engineer Syed Imran Ali, a Global Health and Humanitarianism Fellow at York University, in his Toronto neighbourhood on Nov. 12, 2020. Ali has developed a tool that will help ensure safe drinking water at refugee camps.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.

Thick black soil clung to Syed Imran Ali’s boots as he trudged through the flooded wetlands of South Sudan, where 30,000 refugees had sought safety. South Sudan had emerged as a new country after gaining independence from Sudan, but conflict persisted and forced people to flee.

It was the summer of 2012, and Mr. Ali, who had just completed his PhD in engineering, had arrived at the Jamam Camp in Maban County as a sanitation specialist responsible for increasing its water supply and ensuring it was safe to drink. There was no shortage of it, but it was contaminated. Heavy rain was turning the area into a swamp and creating “a perfect storm for waterborne disease in the camp,” he said.

“Imagine just a pit of sewage – water fills it up and spreads everywhere,” he said, describing the scene at the time as a complete crisis.

He and his co-workers began developing water sources, using a filtration system and chemicals that included chlorine at the final stage to ensure the water was safe to drink. They used well-established guidelines that were considered standard in the humanitarian sector to ensure the water was adequately protected, but when they visited people’s shelters to ask how the water tasted and whether they had enough, what Mr. Ali saw led him to question those guidelines – and devise a new system that promises to help make water safer at camps around the world.

Refugees rely on shared water stations, filling jerry cans and jugs to bring water back to their shelters. They need this water to drink but also to wash and cook. When Mr. Ali and his co-workers visited the shelters, they saw that their water was being stored in unsanitary conditions, often in cracked jerry cans, some full of algae from sitting in the sun. Sometimes children, not knowing any better, dipped their hands in the buckets, adding to the contamination.

So while the water that came out of the shared water stations was safe, it was being recontaminated later, creating deadly risks for the refugees. Already in poor health, the population was vulnerable to infection. Hepatitis E was tearing through the camps, killing many and causing serious illness to others.

Mr. Ali and his colleagues realized that there wasn’t enough residual chlorine in the water to keep it safe in people’s shelters, and began digging into the origins of the guidelines for chlorination. They discovered that the standards had been developed by the World Health Organization for municipal water systems in cities, where water is consumed from the tap in relatively hygienic settings.

To determine the effectiveness of the standards in refugee camps, they conducted studies in South Sudan, as well as camps in Jordan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Bangladesh, and found that the guidelines didn’t always protect people. So Mr. Ali began developing a system that measured specific environmental conditions and offered customized safety guidelines that would ensure healthy drinking water in refugee camps anywhere.

Called the Safe Water Optimization Tool, Mr. Ali’s online resource allows humanitarian aid workers to test water at their stations and also in people’s shelters to determine the level of chlorine required to keep the water safe. It uses machine learning data and modelling techniques to generate water chlorination targets that are specific to that site. It was officially launched in early November by Mr. Ali and a team of researchers at York University’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, who helped develop the tool in partnership with Médecins sans frontières (MSF). By using water-quality data from water stations and from people’s shelters, the models show how chlorine decays in each site and offers site-specific chlorination targets to ensure water is protected from recontamination.

Humanitarian agencies were already collecting data for reporting purposes, Mr. Ali said, “but there’s this life preserving information inside that data, so our analytics can help pull it out.”

Anne Hyvarinen, an associate officer with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ WASH program in Tanzania, said her organization conducted one round of data collection earlier this year in Nyarugusu camp, analyzed the water and adjusted chlorination levels at the tap stand based on SWOT’s recommendation.

“It’s simple to use and highly valuable to get this data-based information for the operations,” she said.

Mr. Ali, who is now a research fellow with Global Health and Humanitarianism at York University, said a number of aid groups have signed up to use the tool. MSF, which his team has worked with closely, has begun using it in camps in Bangladesh and piloted the tool in Nigeria.

The researchers’ goal, he said, is to make the use of the tool the new standard. They also want to urge donors to require the use of the tool in funding agreements.

“We really want to shift the sector to think about water again as a public-health intervention.”

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