Community ownership is key to nanotech water projects

A pilot plant using nano-structured membranes for water treatment in Madibogo village, South Africa Copyright: Thembela Hillie

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Nanotechnology must be effectively shared with stakeholders if it’s to deliver clean water, say Thembela Hillie and Mbhuti Hlophe.

Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right and is essential for keeping populations healthy. Nanotechnology offers the developing world a chance to find solutions to their water problems — by themselves or in collaboration with others in the developing or the developed world.

But successful technology transfer is crucial to any such endeavours. It means building strong partnerships between the scientists who devise technological solutions and the communities who use them — to ensure the research is relevant. It also requires a strong commitment from both public and private institutions to create and support such collaborations.

Too often, our humanitarian approaches to delivering clean water fail to understand local community needs and priorities, and so have limited take-up on the ground (see ‘Technology transfer: lessons learnt in South Africa’). For example, a reverse osmosis plant set up by researchers in the South African village of Zava, in Limpopo province, produced drinking water that met national standards, but was not maintained after the researchers left. It failed because the community did not take ownership of the project.

Technology transfer only works when the end-users take ownership, adopting and adapting the technology to meet their needs. So any proposed solution — including those based on nanotechnology — must match the local realities, taking account of the community’s need for, and capacity to use, the technology. In many cases this will mean developing local infrastructure and human capital.

Community needs

A pilot plant using nano-structured membranes for water treatment in Madibogo village, a remote and arid area of North West Province in South Africa, shows how this can be done.

Scientists often wrongly assume that rural communities with limited water supplies don’t prioritise their water use. In fact, because all the community’s livelihoods and sustainability relies on water, there are usually clearly defined structures governing its use. So nanotech-based proposals for water treatment must interact with these

Researchers from North-West University, South Africa, who established the Madibogo plant, recognised this and built community awareness through education and interaction. They held general classes on water quality and quantity, and water treatment. And they organised workshops to discuss the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder and to teach the community how to take care of the water and the treatment plant.

The researchers also held open days at the plant to reinforce the message and purpose of the nanotechnology project.

Supporting infrastructure

But successfully transferring and implementing nanotechnology for water treatment also depends heavily on the availability of supporting infrastructure. The requirements can be diverse, depending on where the technology is needed. Nanotechnologies have very variable levels of complexity and sophistication. Choosing which to implement strongly depends on what infrastructure and technical expertise does or doesn’t exist in a particular location. For remote rural areas in developing countries, the prerequisites could include such rudimentary fundamentals as electricity and accessibility.

Partnerships are crucial in developing and acquiring the necessary infrastructure. The private sector can help — by designing and constructing the technology itself. The pilot nanomembrane water treatment plant in Madibogo village, for example, was supplied by a company in South Africa’s Western Cape province. But the public sector can also assist by building roads and installing electricity where applicable.

Institutional technical support

Equally importantly, successful technology transfer needs technical support. The ability to adopt or adapt the technology strongly depends on the custodians’ know-how, which often means relying on scientists or academics.

Technical staff, including senior researchers and engineering technicians, should ensure the appropriate knowledge is passed to community members. In the Madibogo village project, senior staff trained postgraduate students, who in turn spent time in the village passing on their knowledge.

The technicians also need to have access to manufacturer and service back-up if problems arise. For Madibogo, researchers at North-West University discuss any mechanical problems with the manufacturers Malutsa (PTY) Ltd.

Local capacity

Skilled personnel are essential for setting up and servicing the technology — but they mostly live far from the projects, making their contributions expensive to maintain. So it is crucial to develop local technical skills.  

Developing skilled local people also has a vital role in sustaining the nanotechnology project’s operation and maintenance, and eventual expansion. For example, one postgraduate student working on the Madibogo water treatment project was looking to acquire a similar plant for solving brackish water problems at her own village. And improving local capacity also promotes a sense of ownership which helps to prevent neglect and vandalism.

Nanotechnology promises improved access to safe drinking water. But a well structured, participative and informed framework for technology transfer — not hand outs — is needed to guarantee successful and sustainable implementation.

Thembela Hillie is a principal research scientist at the National Centre for Nano-Structured Materials at the CSIR in South Africa and an affiliated associate professor of physics at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Mbhuti Hlophe is the head of the chemistry department at North-West University, South Africa.

These are the authors’ views and do not necessarily reflect their institutions’ views.