Towards a water-wise world Annual report 2014

Recommendations on the Ebola epidemic  

Applying expertise for the World Health Organization

23 October 2014Networks Research

As a Collaborating Centre of the World Health Organization, in 2014 KWR makes recommendations concerning the Ebola epidemic, which is causing thousands of victims in West Africa. “By working in such a broad international context, the work of the Dutch water sector builds credibility,” says Chief Science Officer Gertjan Medema.

Since the end of 2013, KWR has been an official partner of the World Health Organization (WHO). KWR activities that contribute to WHO’s objectives, and thus to world health, are conducted under the banner of “WHO Collaborating Centre on Water Quality and Health”. Collaborating Centres are knowledge organisations selected by WHO to help it implement its programmes. At KWR, the centre in situated in the Water Quality and Health Knowledge Group.


One prominent WHO programme in 2014 is the establishment of Ebola Treatment Units for Ebola patients in West Africa. Gertjan Medema, head of the Collaborating Centre at KWR and Professor of Water & Health at TU Delft, says that “WHO asked KWR and other water experts to recommend ways of confronting the water and sanitation challenges in the treatment units. In the presence of such high concentrations of the Ebola virus, good hygiene and sanitation are naturally vital.” The expert group recommends that (suspected) Ebola patients use separate toilets/latrines, and that all bodily fluids of Ebola patients be collected and isolated. The report, published in October 2014, also contains recommendations to ensure a safe distance between the latrines and groundwater/water wells used for drinking water.

How can we confront the water and sanitation challenges in Ebola Treatment Units?

More research needed

The expert group also assessed the risk of the virus spreading via water. “Ebola is a so-called ‘enveloped virus’,” explains Medema. “This means that it has an envelope which it requires to be able to infect humans. The envelope is relatively sensitive to desiccation, heat, detergents and other environmental influences. From this we can deduce that the virus is fragile and is not expected to survive in water for long.” Specific research on the Ebola virus in the environment has however not (yet) been conducted. “There are only a few laboratories in the world that are permitted to work on this life-threatening virus, and most of the effort to date has concentrated on combating it. I expect that there will be time in the future for additional research,” says Medema.

Mutual interest

WHO’s objective is to contribute the utmost to the level of health of all of the world’s citizens. To this end, the organisation establishes policy norms and standards, in the area of water for instance. WHO collects specialist knowledge and translates it for world water practice. And it is precisely in this field that KWR has a lot to offer. “We have a great deal of experience in bridging science to practice,” says Medema. “That’s why we’re able for example to offer strong support in the implementation of operational guidelines for safe drinking water, recreation water and the reuse of wastewater.” KWR has another strong point which explains its selection as a Collaborating Centre by WHO. “We have an excellent research laboratory. Among other things, we test water treatment systems intended for households in less developed countries.” On the other hand, Medema sees an important benefit for KWR and its partners in collaborating with a global organisation like WHO. “By working in such a broad international context, the work of the Dutch water sector builds credibility.”

© 2018 KWR Watercycle Research Institute

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