Water quality tests guard people from diseases

Every day, six teams of keen young sample collectors set out from a water quality testing laboratory in Cox’s Bazar to visit Rohingya camps and surrounding communities.

Armed with batches of testing kits and plastic sample bags, the teams’ task may appear simple, but it is essential for maintaining the health and sanitation in the area. 700 000 people here, rely on clean water for cooking, showering and toilets.

The tests are designed to detect fecal contamination by analysing water samples for E. Coli, a type of gut bacteria that can cause acute watery diarrhea as well as other water-borne diseases. The bacterium is especially dangerous for children and the elderly.

WHO’s national climate change and water consultant, Dr Ahammadul Kabir is in charge of these teams. Dr Kabir says when he arrived in Cox’s Bazar in September 2017, the Rohingya influx was already overwhelming available resources and there was no set up for water-quality testing on such a large scale in the small resort town.

‘I was forced to improvise,’ he says. ‘At beginning I set up the testing kits and instruments in my hotel room, then we gradually received suitable equipment. WHO set up the laboratory and provided technical, financial and logistical assistance to the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE).’ The DPHE is responsible for constructing and maintaining the public water supply.

On an average, in a day, 180 water samples are gathered by 18 sample collectors, from different settlements and surrounding host communities. They collect samples from at least two households and conduct a sanitary inspection of the site.

‘We also teach the people how to avoid unhygienic practices related to water usage. For example, if a person in the household hasn’t cleaned their hands properly and then dips their hand into a container of drinking water, or if the container is not properly cleaned, this can introduce E. Coli into the water they consume,’ Dr Kabir explains.

Once the teams have finished their sample collection, they return to the laboratory and hand over their samples for testing. This process can quickly flag any contamination issues.

The team shares the test results with all the water and sanitation organisations for follow-ups, which could range from emergency ‘shock chlorination’ of the water, to community hygiene behaviour change campaigns.

‘With regular and rigorous water quality surveillance WHO is helping avoid the spread of serious water-borne diseases and making people’s health a priority,’ Dr Kabir added.