Clean and reliable water – it’s a simple concept that goes right to the heart of why the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC) exists. But in 2017, water free of harmful bacteria, sewage, and disease-carrying insects remains a mere aspiration for 2.3 billion people around the world. Contaminated water is responsible for the deaths of 760,000 children from diarrhoea annually, and other illnesses from a lack of clean water contribute directly to the poverty cycle foundational to the urban slums of developing countries.

So far, the principles of water sensitive urban design (WSUD) have been tested predominantly in developed countries like Singapore, Israel, China, and Australia, where improved health outcomes are just one aspect of a suite of environmental, economic, and lifestyle benefits for urban communities.

In Australia, for example, WSUD seeks to conserve water, protect communities against droughts and floods, improve the environmental health of water ways and mitigate the impacts of extreme heat on health and well-being. CRCWSC research on the design of the public realm to enhance urban microclimates (Project B3.2) has highlighted the heat-reducing properties of urban green spaces such as botanic gardens, and revealed that particular groups in the community are more vulnerable to extreme heat. Research into the lifestyles of Melbourne’s elderly Jewish community uncovered the heightened impact on those who live by strict dress codes (for example, elderly members of the Jewish Orthodox community) or who are reluctant to seek help when their homes overheat (such as survivors of the Holocaust).

But an international Monash University-led research consortium is soon about to take the promise of improved health through clean water and WSUD to a new level. The successful award of AUD$14 million from the global charitable Wellcome Trust (UK), and integral involvement and addional funding of AUD$12 million by the Asian Development Bank, have created a new focus for the CRCWSC and its partners on improving water infrastructure, management, and sanitation to benefit the residents of urban slums in the Asia-Pacific region.

Over five years from 1 July 2017, and using the CRCWSC and Asian Development Bank’s past collaborations as a springboard, the collaborative project will draw on WSC principles developed in western contexts to improve the water management of 24 informal settlements (urban slums) in Fiji and Indonesia. The core objectives are well-defined: to improve the basic services of water supply, sanitation, flood protection and drainage to reduce faecal contamination and prevent disease. The contamination of groundwater and standing water from overflowing latrines, and the downstream spread of contaminated water via rain surface flows, are among the main causes of pervasive health issues among poor and vulnerable slum communities, which house over a billion people globally. A significant part of the work will involve introduction of green infrastructure in the settlements, such as installing wetlands and biofiltration systems for water management.

Professor Rebekah Brown, Director of Monash Sustainability and Development Institute and Project Director, credits the critical roles of the two funding bodies.

“The collaboration of the Wellcome Trust and the Asian Development Bank is key to this work. While their respective missions of human health research and infrastructure-based poverty alleviation in the Asia-Pacific region are quite different, they meet perfectly in the realisation of this project.”

The long-term success of this project will stem from the input of a large range of disciplines, including public health experts, biologists, economists, architects, sociologists and engineers from Monash University, and from its main academic partners: Melbourne University, and Stanford and Emory Universities in the United States.

An exciting aspect of the project is that it will provide demonstrable proof of the viability of the concepts and systems developed by the CRCWSC in a vastly different social and economic context. To achieve this, however, the project team needs to build a groundswell of local support.

Professor Rob Skinner, Deputy Chair of the CRCWSC, was recently appointed Chair of WaterAid International, a non-government organisation that works with local communities in Timor, Cambodia, and Papua New Guinea. As a project partner, WaterAid brings with it critical experience in creating buy-in from both the top and bottom ends of the stakeholder spectrum.

“To get the best possible outcomes in these informal settlements, we will have to understand and respect the socio-economic arrangements and governance of those communities and how decisions are made”.

But the benefits of clean water and sanitation will far surpass their immediate outcomes:

“Better sanitation will directly improve health, but it will also provide wider socio-economic benefits, aid women’s welfare by making long and hazardous walks to fetch water unnecessary, and provide dignity and intergenerational equity to some of the world’s poorest people.”

Both Rebekah Brown and Rob Skinner view the true value of this project in terms of its significant potential to translate to a much larger scale. By creating case studies for use throughout the developing world, they hope that it will positively influence policy and help to direct the future spending priorities of governments and philanthropic organisations looking for measurable impact.

Nicola Markus for the Mind Your Way Team