Global Water Pathogen Project (GWPP)

Although the human right to water and sanitation was recognized in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, the combination of inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene, and unsafe drinking water is today still responsible for an estimated annual burden of 2 million diarrheal deaths. The most common route of infection with a waterborne pathogen is the “fecal-oral” route. This means people are infected when they are exposed to water or food contaminated with untreated human or animal feces or improperly treated sewage.

WHO reported in 2014 that 1.8 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces and almost 85% of the world’s total wastewater is discharged without adequate or any treatment. In response, adequate management of wastewater must address the risk factors constituted by water pathogens.

There are many different types of waterborne pathogens that cause disease. These pathogens include bacteria, viruses, protozoan parasites, and helminths (worms). Many of these pathogens cause the same symptoms, i.e. diarrhea, which makes it difficult to determine the specific responsible pathogen when people become sick. It is now recognized that these pathogens also cause heart, liver, and kidney infections, ulcers, meningitis, and neurological and respiratory problems. Hence the need for adequate wastewater treatment in order to reduce the concentration of pathogens, and health risk. Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development has also underlined the crucial importance of clean water and sanitation with a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to ensuring “access to water and sanitation for all” (SDG 6).

The book “Sanitation and Disease: Health Aspects of Excreta and Wastewater Management” (Feachem et al. 1983) currently remains the most comprehensive overview of fecal indicators and pathogens occurrence, characteristics, development, control and dissemination in the environment. Since its publication, it has played a key role in the prevention of incidence and mortality associated with water-related diseases. However, the dramatic increase of relevant knowledge and data over the past 30 years calls for an update of the book’s content. The Global Water Pathogen Project (GWPP) is thus aimed at developing a knowledge resource to reduce mortality linked to water pathogens and the lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation through creating, publishing and disseminating the state-of-the-art replacement of the current benchmark reference work on water related disease risks and intervention measures, Feachem et al. The knowledge gathered through the project will be available through a UNESCO book in French, English and Spanish, both in printed and electronic format, as well as through an online data base and knowledge platform, following the open access policy of UNESCO. GWPP will provide an updated review of the efficacy of sanitation technologies and serve as a compendium of waterborne pathogen information and quantitative data to support risk assessment to protect water safety. The GWPP network currently counts with 113 authors (46.6% of women) from 41 countries divided into 9 teams.

The project will contribute to the implementation of SDG 6 on water and sanitation by:

  • evaluating available wastewater treatment and sanitation technologies to achieve the needed removal of pathogens to protect public health (target 6.1);
  • providing information on small and large systems for excreta and wastewater treatment (target 6.2);
  • providing maps showing pathogen emissions to surface water from untreated and treated wastewater to support decision making (target 6.3);
  • providing information on water quality diagnostics (source tracking markers), which can be used to formulate Water Quality Agreements (target 6.5);
  • Future efforts will provide lectures, courses and programmes for capacity building and water science and technology education (targets 6a and 6b).

The project will also contribute to the implementation of SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) by providing information on how to prevent exposure to pathogens that cause diarrhea, the second leading cause of death for children under five and access to clean water and sanitation that prevents “environmental enteropathy”, which can lead to malnutrition.

The project is implemented by the International Hydrological Programme of UNESCO (IHP) in partnership with the Michigan State University. Work is also being conducted with the World Health Organization to support its Sanitation Guidelines and create synergies between the two projects.

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Photo: Cholera Outbreak in Haiti, © UN Photo/UNICEF/Marco Dormino