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Voice of the educator: Civil engineers tackle clean water issue

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This post is sponsored by Ohio University Online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program. 

Each year, 3.4 million people die from poor water and sanitation conditions. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries. Civil engineers at Ohio University are determined to change this equation.

According to data from, roughly 780 million people – about 10% of the world’s population – lack access to clean water. Nearly 2.5 billion live in areas with inadequate sanitation. Every year, 3.4 million people die from poor water and sanitation conditions.

When it comes to water, most of the world’s attention goes to clean drinking water. But this is only one part of the water equation, according to Guy Riefler, associate professor of Civil Engineering at Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Riefler discussed water issues in developing countries during a Sept. 16 webcast about OHIO’s Online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program.

“Wastewater collection and treatment are also critical,” Riefler explained, adding that these systems have been instrumental in reducing the number of deaths by microorganisms, many of which are waterborne.

He cited the example of citizens of Philadelphia that were dying from typhoid in the 1860s. When the city began treating the drinking water, the death rate dropped from 10,000 annually to 1,000. Adding chlorination to the system reduced deaths to 100. That’s a 100-fold decrease in disease simply from water treatment.

Unfortunately, even today, not all countries have proper water and sanitation systems in place. The United Nations estimates that just 4-5% of citizens in Ghana are connected to barely functional sewage systems and treatment facilities. Untreated water frequently flows directly into ditches, streams and other sources used for irrigation and sometimes even drinking water.

In China, 70% of the nation’s rivers and lakes—and more than half its groundwater—is polluted, according to Reuters. The World Bank has loaned the country over $1 billion to provide and protect drinking water.

Riefler doesn’t mince words about the dismal picture. “It’s time for the developed world to see the water issues impacting the developing world more broadly,” he says.

Wastewater management and treatment is a huge health issue, “but we don’t like to talk about it and rarely provide the proper resources to deal with it,” Riefler explains. “We must change that.

Civil engineers are key to bringing change. “Our profession has the talent and the tools to reshape the discussion and to drive the innovation and ideas necessary to address this problem head on,” he says. “And it’s not just water. We need new ideas for transportation, pavement, structures—all the segments of civil engineering.”

Billions of people are waiting for the infrastructure —and the civil engineers who design it—to help them build economies and improve quality of life.

“There’s a lot of work out there,” Riefler says, “Let’s get started.”

Guy Riefler, Ph.D., P.E., is an associate professor of Civil Engineering at Ohio University. Dr. Riefler served as the faculty advisor for the OHIO Engineers Without Borders group in Ghana, and has also worked with students in the WERC environmental design competition. Dr. Riefler was awarded the ODNR Mining Awareness Educator Award in 2009 and the Ohio University Transformative Teaching Award in 2011. He is a registered professional environmental engineer in the State of Ohio, and worked for three years at ENVIRON Corporation in Arlington, Va.