A global look at how we treat water
Over the past century, the amount of water that humans use has increased at more than twice the rate of our burgeoning population. In many places, we are draining clean freshwater sources faster than we can replenish them. And one out of every nine people in the world does not have access to safe drinking water.
Everyone can agree that clean water is a precious resource. That consensus breaks down, however, when it comes to how we should conserve it.
Arizona State University student Sarah Patel has been exploring differing views about water over the past two-and-a-half years. Patel is an undergraduate researcher in the Culture, Health and Environment Lab, part of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC). For her honors thesis, she used data from the 2013 Global Ethnohydrology Survey to examine how people from different cultures perceive wastewater.
The survey is part of a transdisciplinary, multi-year study of water issues around the globe, led by SHESC anthropologists Amber Wutich and Alexandra Brewis Slade. Patel’s research sites—Guatemala, Fiji, New Zealand and Spain—provide a cross-section of cultures in both developed and developing countries.
Through interviews with local residents, Patel analyzed people’s attitudes and perceptions about wastewater. She also studied drawings the participants made depicting the routes they thought wastewater should take to become drinkable again.
Wastewater is water that has been contaminated by human activities. In the United States, most wastewater is treated to remove harmful substances and then discharged into the ground, lakes or reservoirs. Eventually it returns to our water supply, but the process can take years and the water may end up far from where it was released.
Scientists have made great strides in developing methods to filter wastewater. In fact, treatment technology can produce water that is cleaner than the bottled water sold in stores. Scientifically speaking, recycling treated wastewater directly into the water supply could be part of the solution to water scarcity. In fact, a few communities are already doing this.
But science is only part of the answer. Even if health experts say that water is clean enough to drink, that doesn’t mean people will.
“Even the most purified water, that had one part out of 1,000 parts wastewater, was still deemed undrinkable by a percentage of people in all four research sites,” Patel says. This phenomenon is widely known as the “yuck factor.”
Patel also found that participants in both Spain and Guatemala were concerned about health risks associated with wastewater reuse. With high levels of wastewater treatment in Spain, however, health issues are less of a risk there than at sites in developing countries such as Guatemala.
"In Guatemala, the site that was chosen was in a rural location where the community was used to seeing contaminated water or wastewater near and around villages," Patel says.
At all four sites, people were more inclined to consider reusing wastewater in order to preserve the resource for future generations. Participants from all four countries also said they would use the treated water if it would help save wildlife in the local rivers and streams.
“Most of the people we interviewed were geared toward sustainability and preventing shortages for the future,” Patel says.
In Fiji and Guatemala, cost was another motivating factor for participants. This was not the case for the majority of respondents in Spain or New Zealand, where participants expressed the highest levels of disgust associated with wastewater reuse.
Patel is a senior in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College, double majoring in global health and political science. As a pre-med student, she joined the Culture, Health and Environment Lab to develop a global, culturally sensitive view of health issues.
“Sarah was selected from a competitive pool of 30 applicants to intern in the lab,” says Amber Wutich, who co-directs the lab. “She immediately set herself apart from other students with her reliability and efficiency.”
Sarah Patel was selected to present a research poster at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C. She has also been accepted to the M.D. program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.
Patel says she appreciates the opportunity that undergraduate research provided her to work independently and explore a project more deeply than she could in a semester-long class. But she says the best part has been getting to know the other students in the lab.
One those students is Holly Vins. A double major in global health and justice studies, Vins worked in the Culture, Health and Environment Lab during her junior and senior years. She helped lead a project called “The Science of Water Art,” which became the foundation for her honors thesis. Vins published her findings as first author in the peer-reviewed journal “Human Organization.”
“We asked about 1,500 Arizona 9- to 11-year-olds to draw how they view water being used in their lives today and in the future,” Vins says. She used codes, developed collaboratively in the lab, to analyze the drawings based on what they depicted, such as pollution, vegetation, water scarcity or commercial water use.
Vins found that many kids had negative views of the future. The drawings also displayed interesting gender differences.
“Girls were a lot more likely to draw domestic uses of water, which I thought was really fascinating. It shows how ingrained gender roles are in our society, and how girls are taught from a young age to take on the domestic role—even when it comes to something as seemingly simple as using water,” Vins says.
After graduating, Vins pursued a Master of Public Health degree at Emory University, and now works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She helps support disease surveillance projects at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Vins credits her undergraduate research experience at ASU with inspiring her to pursue a career in public health. She still remembers the rush of her first “aha” moment.
“That project was really like my baby,” Vins says. “I learned so much from that struggle and then that moment of clarity when it all came together. It’s a feeling that’s so hard to beat—even now.”