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SWEET solutions: monitoring global public health solutions from PSU

Nearly a billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and half the world’s population burns wood as a sole means of cooking and sanitation. Consequently, two million people—mostly kids—die every year from contaminated water, and millions more from upper-respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to black soot. Unbelievable. The severity of these numbers can be difficult to fathom—how do we even begin providing assistance when so many people world-wide struggle for the basic necessities of life? We look to those who have already begun the fight.

At the Institute for Sustainable Solutions weekly Solutions Seminar on November 2, Assistant Professor Evan Thomas discussed how he and his team of students and researchers are combating these life-threatening realities. Thomas heads up Portland State’s SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory), where engineers design and implement household and community-scale solutions like gravity water filters and clean-burning stoves. Partnering with the international disease-control company Vestergaard Frandsen, Thomas’ team is currently deploying the largest non-governmental water treatment program ever, already providing four million people with the tools to access safe drinking water.

Because they engineer solutions that provide safe water and energy sources, Thomas’ team is also building in reliable streams of revenue with carbon financing. Through the social enterprise Manna Energy Limited, his team has secured the first ever United Nations carbon credit funding for water treatment, allowing these life-saving projects to continue reaching communities in nations like Kenya, Rwanda, Haiti and Indonesia.

Most recently, the SWEETLab has been working to revolutionize the way we deploy and monitor this kind of assistance to the world’s poor. They have developed the first-of-its kind remote sensor, the SWEETSense, to monitor devices like water filters, cookstoves, and sanitation facilities, right here from Portland State. Using cell phone waves to transmit data, the sensors track how well these units are working, and also whether people are using them. From small-scale volunteer work to expansive large-scale projects, these sensors provide data that will better inform the technology used in the developing world—creating a whole new level of accountability for international relief efforts.