Making Waves: GVSU faculty members working to address global water cleanliness

Grand Valley faculty members are working to address and improve water quality for global citizens, carrying out a key principle of the Making Waves initiative.

One project is taking place along the Grand River, where Grand Valley scientists are studying how a water well containing sand can produce clean water for those in Haiti.

Another project led by a multimedia journalism faculty member has dispatched journalists across Africa to tell the stories of not only problems with finding clean water but also the social justice complications that many individuals face in their quest to obtain it.

The impact of each project is both local and far-reaching.

Testing if sand in wells creates conditions for clean drinking water

Along the Grand River, Peter Wamplerprofessor of geology and a leader of the Making Waves initiative, has set up a test well to see if adding sand does create a safe and affordable alternative for water wells in Haiti.

Scientists believe a microbiological event is actually creating the drinkable water, Wampler said.

A professor filling a test well.
Peter Wampler, professor of geology, fills a test well. This photo was taken before an order that masks must be worn outside at all times.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

Essentially, over time the sand appears to create an environment where microbes that would make water undrinkable are consumed by other organisms, a situation Wampler referred to as a "good zoo."

Wampler is working with Roderick Morgan, professor of biology, on the testing. Morgan said within the sand is an apparent predator/prey environment where the prey is E.coli and coliform bacteria.

The early part of the project entailed checking if E.coli and coliform levels are decreasing as the well matures, Morgan said. Longer term, scientists are studying the change in microbiological composition in the well compared to the outside of it.

"What we think is that the sand acts a matrix for these predator microbes to grow," Morgan said. "Then the question is, what are the microbes eating? Basically, we believe it's the E.coli and the coliform bacteria and other nutrients."

Plans for the well.
The plans for the test well.
Amanda Pitts
A worker digs an area for the well.
Preparation for the test well along the Grand River taking place in July 2020.
Amanda Pitts
Getting the well's framework in place.
Peter Wampler works in July 2020 to place the well's framework.
Amanda Pitts

Part of the test well site includes outer wells measuring the bacteria level in groundwater for comparison with the well containing sand, Wampler said. Testing was aided by a grant as well as sand from High Grade Materials Co., he added.

Wampler, who has done extensive work in Haiti, said this research is important for a country where many backyards have open wells that contain water that is unfit for drinking or, as his students have found, even sometimes for washing dishes. Besides isolating the well water from the surface, using sand also provides an operational advantage, he said.

"It allows the user to pump the water out rather than using a bucket," Wampler said.

Reporting on the quest for clean water in Africa

While at a conference attended by journalists throughout Africa, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, asked what kinds of stories they wanted to tell.

He immediately started hearing harrowing stories of the peril girls faced from men soliciting sex in exchange for access to clean water. And of fecal-laden water. And how unreliable water was for so many.

Kelly Lowenstein asked for story pitches and received dozens, leading to a collection of recently produced stories from Africa that are part of the "H2O Fail" series produced by the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism. Kelly Lowenstein serves as executive director of the global organization committed to journalists covering overlooked issues while seeking solutions.

"It’s been really moving to watch the journalists who are already having really difficult circumstances before COVID came produce this work," Kelly Lowenstein said. He noted that Jane Johnston, '20, has played a key role in amplifying these and other stories as part of the organization's social media team.

This photo accompanied a story about the dangers women and girls face while collecting water.
This photo accompanied a story about the dangers women and girls face while collecting water.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Jenipher Changwanda, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism

Stories include one titled "Dying for a Drop," which tells the danger villagers face trying to retrieve water from deep and unstable wells — sometimes the very wells where relatives died as they tried to get water.

The act of bringing these stories to light is a profound achievement, Kelly Lowenstein said. Reporters face media crackdowns and many other obstacles while also having moments of holding public officials to account or hearing the story is being widely discussed.

While the topics have been in the works for awhile, Kelly Lowenstein said he is glad to see the confluence of the Making Waves initiative and the important issues raised in this reporting.

Making Waves is a university-led collaboration among students, faculty, staff and the community to explore the ways water touches our lives. The initiative includes research, activities and events, highlighting water-related courses and more.