In 1984, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) published international guidelines* for drinking-water safety, the only portable water testing equipment available was ungainly and heavy to transport.
At the University of Surrey, Professor of Environmental Health Engineering, Barry Lloyd set up a multidisciplinary team with the goal of producing a water testing kit, which was light, reliable, simple to use and accurate. The result was the DelAgua Water Testing Kit which is now used in 130 countries across the globe by over 300 different organisations. Typical users include UNICEF, IFRC, WHO, Red Cross, Water Aid and Oxfam.
Prof Lloyd comments: “The DelAgua kit is a hand-portable package which allows people to carry out simple chemical tests and to incubate samples. Training is straightforward and takes around two days.”
The kit tests for five water quality indicators, which in combination can indicate the likelihood of pathogens being present. A major development in the kit was a reliable incubator for testing the microbiological quality of the water. This allows the kit to hold incubation temperatures accurately for up to 24 hours and conduct as many as five testing cycles a week, without battery recharge. Field life expectancy is an amazing 15 years.
Using the DelAgua Water Testing Kit
There is a standard procedure for using the kit:
Day 1: set up sample sites and survey the area to be covered, and assess the sanitary conditions, water sources and locations of communities.
Day 2: take all samples, conduct the various tests and place the samples into the incubator.
Day 3: remove the samples from the incubator and record the results. The results are available 16-18 hours after the samples have been placed in the incubator.
Identifying the problem
The majority of drinking-water contamination that is of immediate concern to human health is not due to chemical pollution. It is caused by microorganisms present at high levels in animal or human wastes. These microorganisms can cause gastrointestinal infections, which can be extremely serious in young children and the elderly. In developing countries, these infections can often lead to the death of the child.
Prof Lloyd comments: “The DelAgua water kit quickly identifies what and where the problems are, but the challenge is then to fix them. This can take many months or years, and often involves education programmes and changes to water infrastructures.”
For example, the DelAgua Kit has been used throughout the 1990s in Latin America, which has now completely eradicated cholera, through a process of long-term education and continuous monitoring of water resources, rather than simply stopping the use of ‘bad’ water supplies.
The situation remains serious
Over the last 30 years, water and sanitation have improved by 50%, but the problem is still very serious, especially in the developing world. In the last ten years, eight million deaths can be attributed to unsafe drinking water. In India, less than 20% of the population have clean water and 800 million people don’t have basic sanitation, so there is a chronic issue of parasitic diseases. In Brazil, it took ten years from the creation of a decent water system, until parasitic diseases were truly removed.
Prof Lloyd says: “We still haven’t met the Millennium Development Goals** so there is a lot more to be done. I’m currently back in the field looking at designing water systems which can act as natural water filters, and which don’t need expensive installations.”
DelAgua Water Testing Kit – an evolving product
In the early 1990s, when Dr Steve Pedley, Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey inherited the DelAgua Water Testing Kit, around 150 units per year were being sold to NGOs. The business had grown organically, without any marketing or commercialisation.
“The kit was being sold quite cheaply considering the benefits it delivered”, said Dr Pedley. “Each unit was sold at a very low cost which came with full training. And each unit could last up to 15 years without needing repair. Indeed we calculated that kit was being sold at well below its cost price.” He also improved the design, and introduced accessories to further develop the kit and provide a better service to the NGOs who relied on the kit for their work.
A range of uses across the globe
Many thousands of DelAgua kits are used by over 300 different organisations including UNICEF, IFRC, WHO, Red Cross, Water Aid, Oxfam. The kits are also used by individuals within communities, universities and government departments.
There are a variety of circumstances where the kit is needed: UNICEF uses it for data monitoring; Oxfam uses it in emergency situations; UNHCR uses it in refugee camps in war zones; armed forces may need it to test water supplies, for example, the Ghurkhas use it in Nepal.
Dr Pedley says: “When you are not viewing situations from a commercial point of view, you can have a broader perspective and find technological solutions which work well within the environment where they will be used. If you can spend the time understanding where and how it will be used, it is easy to make the technology more user friendly and effective.”
In 2006, the business was transferred out of the University of Surrey, and a new business team, under the direction of James Beaumont, was created to take the not-for-profit company forward.
James Beaumont of DelAgua says: “The Company is launching a low cost canister which can collect and store water safely, and can be used, without training, by a family of four for up to 12 months. We are also continuing to encourage water authorities to use the DelAgua kit to monitor the quality of water supplies, in non-crisis relief situations.”