Team-building exercise supports clean water for Africa

Most Australians take clean drinking water for granted, but one billion people globally have no access to it.

Almost two million people every year die of completely avoidable waterborne diseases.

Fifty-two professional staff from The University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences (SCMB) have taken small steps to address the problem, building 17 emergency water filtration systems in two hours as part of a team-building activity.

Head of School Professor Paul Young said the professional development Water Works program was designed to bring staff together but served the dual purpose of improving the health and wellbeing of about 300 people in Rwene, Uganda.

“It was a thought-provoking exercise for staff, as our researchers work on human health and immunity projects, and our students learn about waterborne diseases and the role of microbes and human health in the course MICR3001,” he said.

“Amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis A and typhoid are some common waterborne diseases in Africa, caused by infections through polluted water.

“Most of these diseases aren’t found in developed countries that have sophisticated systems to filter and chlorinate water to eliminate disease-carrying organisms.”

Professor Young said emergency filtration systems are critical during times of flooding and other natural disasters, being compact and easily transportable in large numbers to required locations.

School manager Mark Starkey said the UQ staff development activity to build emergency filtration systems would have a multiplier effect.

“Additonally 17 households in Rwene village will receive long-term, larger household water filtration systems, to be assembled on site in Africa, with components purchased in Uganda, stimulating the local economy,” Mr Starkey said.

He said the success of the Helping Hands facilitated program last year prompted the School to seek another professional development activity with “meaning” this year.

“Last year 50 SCMB staff built 17 prosthetic hands for amputees in the developing world, with UQ being the first university in Queensland to take part in the Helping Hands program,” Mr Starkey said.

In this year’s water filtration project, participants designed artworks to decorate their gifts, and they will receive photos of the families who receive the filtration systems.

One of the team-building activities involved jumbling up the instruction cards between groups, requiring teams needed to collaborate effectively in order to successfully complete the tasks.

Participants were also blindfolded at one point of the activity, to increase the degree of difficulty but also to emphasise that poor water quality was the single biggest cause of avoidable blindness in the developing world.

Water Works program manager Sarah Lally said the activity assisted participants to empathise with the people they were helping.

“Teams had a chance to check the quality of their work once they removed their blindfolds,” she said.

SCMB scientific officers Dr Anshu Raghuwanshi and Fiona Arbuthnot have both experienced unsafe drinking water; visiting India, Dr Raghuwanshi knew to only drink bottled water, and Ms Arbuthnot drank boiled water and was vaccinated to avoid cholera in Singapore in the 1960s.

“Clean water is such a basic human need so it’s reassuring to know that our work will be of value to others,” Dr Raghuwanshi said.

Ms Lally said the impact of water-borne diseases globally included 440 million missed school days and 50 per cent of hospital beds being taken up with patients with these diseases.

“This program also helps reduce sexual violence against women who walk to collect clean water in the morning, and it helps keep menstruating high school students in school longer because of improved sanitation,” she said.

She said the program’s professional development value was in different work groups learning to join together in a confusing situation to deliver a project on time.

It enabled ordinary people to get involved in building and donating real water filtration systems, with the journey of each system donated tracked in detail through the 3 Billion Stories tracking system.

“Participants have absolute transparency about where their filtration system is ultimately donated,” she said.

“This activity becomes deeply personal for participants and is an opportunity to develop skills in collaboration, quality assurance and customer commitment.”

Media: Professor Paul Young,, +61 7 336 54622.



Last updated:
25 August 2017