Improving global access to clean water

As of 2014, 768 million people lack access to potable drinking water, and 2.5 billion are in need of adequate bathroom facilities. According to the World Health Organization, almost 2,000 children die each day as a result.

Since 2012, Arup has maintained a strong partnership with WaterAid America, an international organization dedicated to providing safe drinking water and sanitation to the developing world. This partnership has given our staff the opportunity to provide technical knowledge and guidance that will help communities across the globe access clean water for decades to come.

Improving local systems, local capacity in Nigeria

The partnership began with an exploratory mission between Arup and WaterAid’s Nigeria office in 2007 that exposed Arup New York staff to the technical challenges involved in international development and demonstrated opportunities for to us to jump in and help.

For three months, I worked alongside WaterAid staff in Nigeria to explore the water and sanitation systems used by rural communities.

Members of one Nigerian community that participated in the sanitation pilot project.

I found a diverse set of existing systems, some mass-produced and some locally built. Some drinking water systems drew water from the ground, while others caught it as it fell from the sky during the rainy season. Sanitation systems were almost always pit latrines — holes dug by each family beside the home, topped with a small enclosure made of straw or mudblock.

Many of these systems were serving their respective communities well, but some had fatal issues stemming from their design or construction. A rainwater catch basin in the village of Obijago, for example, heaved and collapsed during one rainy season not long after its construction. I was able to determine why this had occurred and create sketches demonstrating how to prevent similar instances in the future.


Collapsed rainwater catch basin and technical sketches.

There were technical issues with sanitation as well. In communities across the country, families were getting discouraged with pit latrines that regularly failed as the loose soils around the unlined pits collapsed. The burden of reconstruction too great, many were returning to open-field defecation.

I worked directly with WaterAid volunteers and members of the affected communities to design and carry out a pilot program that tested several technical solutions. All involved construction techniques and materials readily available to all local households, such as woven rope, bamboo, and small hardwoods.

Zak Kostura with local collaborators in Nigeria.

The most successful solution used a woven bamboo cage (see image at top of page) to support the loose soil around the pit and prevent sudden collapse of the latrine above. I worked with WaterAid volunteers to engage select communities to demonstrate the solution and its construction.

Knowledge of the woven bamboo cage has since spread to many communities across Nigeria, and is being replicated by families building new latrines, who no longer need direct support from volunteers outside the community.

Bringing WaterAid to the western hemisphere

In 2012, Arup and WaterAid America entered into a partnership that offers all of our staff members the opportunity to provide similar support to a new WaterAid office (the first in the western hemisphere) in eastern Nicaragua.

With the opening of a new office come new cultural, political, environmental and technical challenges. In the first two years of the partnership, Arup has responded to the needs of the WaterAid Nicaragua office by providing design guides prepared by volunteers across various engineering disciplines to assist in the planning and realization of water distribution systems commonly used in this region.

The first guide issued focuses on the planning, sizing, and layout of water distribution systems powered by photovoltaic panels. These systems are often improperly sized and can be subject to theft or vandalism. The guide addresses these issues using sketches, tables, and language that can be understood by community members, who are often active participants in the planning process but rarely possess the expertise to design robust, scalable, and secure distribution systems.

Concept sketch illustrating the configuration of a typical photovoltaic pumping system.

The topography of eastern Nicaragua is particularly conducive to a type of pump known as a “ram pump”, which takes advantage of a river’s natural flow. Ram pumps have been popular in the nation for some time, but have proven vulnerable to storms and river surges. Arup civil engineers prepared a design guideline document that assists communities in identifying the most secure location for the ram pump components and finding low-cost means of fortifying them against damage from hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Existing guidance on ramp pump use in Nicaragua didn’t provide insight into protecting the pumps from storm surges.

Concept sketch illustrating the configuration of a typical ram pumping system.

The Arup/WaterAid partnership continues in 2014, with particular focus on the challenges of household sanitation in Nicaragua. Work carried out by staff members will be documented in future design guidelines, which will be published to the international development community worldwide.

Villagers in Ethiopia use a rope pump to collect water.

We hope that these documents, which bear the fruit of technical skill and creativity targeted at social betterment, will aid organizations that share Arup’s commitment to shape a better world.

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