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Saving lives one drop at a time

Adelina Huo
Adelina Huo, an undergraduate public health studies major, recently traveled to Ghana, where she helped set up a water treatment center. Photo: Chris Hartlove

The impact that technology can have on public health can be as simple as the difference between clean and dirty water, but can be as profound as the difference between life and death.

Adelina Huo carried this lesson back from Ghana last January. Huo, a junior majoring in public health studies, traveled there with other students as part of a fellowship program offered by Community Water Solutions, a non-governmental organization dedicated to providing safe drinking water in communities in developing nations. She was drawn to the issues of poor water quality and sanitation, deceptively simple problems with huge ramifications. Nearly one billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.

"Everyone needs water to survive, and the fact that some people don't [have clean water] simply because they're born somewhere that doesn't have it, just seems so unfair to me," Huo says. "Why can't we do our best to somehow change that?"

Huo and her three co-fellows, who together raised the $10,000 for the costs of their trip and the project itself, spent nearly a month working with a community in northern Ghana to establish a water treatment center for filtering and chlorinating water. The center relies on the simple, low-cost technologies of alum and chlorine to sterilize the water.

In Huo's eyes, a pivotal challenge was implementing the technology in a setting vastly different from that in which it was designed and introducing new behaviors into well-worn patterns of daily life. "Any technology or solution that requires people to completely change their lives is probably not going to work that well," she says, which is why Community Water Solutions and others design projects with "appropriate technology" that correspond to the communities that need them.

Huo came back to Baltimore resolved to learn as much as she could about technology and public health, and ultimately chose to add a minor to her degree: engineering for sustainable development. "I hope to be a sort of middle man between public health and technology, and figure out how to integrate it more fully into communities and make it sustainable," she says.

The poverty she saw in Ghana also moderated her expectations about impact; after all, the community she had worked in now has clean water but still lacks a school.

But accepting this does nothing to undermine Huo's hopes. "We really only solved one small thing, and there are so many other things to do," she says. "But I don't see that as discouraging. That just makes me want to do more."

This article was originally published in Johns Hopkins Public Health magazine

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