Here’s how Purdue is improving water safety in Afghanistan

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

By Brian Wallheimer

Herat University student measures albumin height

Herat University student Shaoib Rahimi (right), measures albumin height, an indicator of egg quality, while Purdue University’s Paul Ebner observes.–indicator of egg quality.

One in 10 Afghan children will die before their fifth birthday. And 20 percent of those childhood deaths will be because of diarrheal diseases arising from unsafe food and water.

When an Afghan student in Herat Province told Haley Oliver that her neighbor’s children were often sick, she wanted a sample of the family’s well water.

“Sure enough, it was loaded with E. coli. It was one of the most contaminated samples we found. It turns out the family’s well is right near the outdoor latrine,” said Oliver, a Purdue associate professor of food science. “That’s unfortunately quite common because there is a gap in knowledge in how disease is transmitted.”

Oliver and Purdue colleagues are attempting to narrow that knowledge gap. Through the United States Agency for International Development’s University Support and Workforce Development Program, Oliver, Paul Ebner, professor of animal sciences, Amanda Deering, clinical assistant professor of food science, and Kevin McNamara, emeritus professor of agricultural economics, have helped establish a new academic department and developed a new curriculum, backed by industry and approved by the country’s Ministry of Higher Education. The first group of 18 students should earn bachelor’s degrees in food technology at Herat University in Herat, Afghanistan, in December.

The curriculum emphasizes laboratory work that will give the students the skills to find jobs upon completion of their degrees.

“Traditionally, the training in many bachelor degree programs isn’t robust,” Oliver said. “It’s extremely rare for a student in Afghanistan to leave their university and get a job in what they were trained to do.”

That’s because the relationships among academia, industry and government – common in countries like the United States – don’t often exist in Afghanistan. The country’s unemployment rate is still about 36 percent.

The hope is that training in more comprehensive programs, like the one developed by Purdue faculty, will not only improve job prospects for students, but also improve the lives of people throughout the country.

“There’s traditionally been a disconnect between what’s taught at university and what’s needed in real life,” Ebner said. “This program was designed by taking what we’ve learned about the needs of food processors and future employers and building a curriculum that teaches to that. These students will get jobs in their fields and make differences in their country.”

As part of the training, students and Purdue faculty conducted tests on water samples from 125 wells and 107 taps supplied by municipal water in Herat City. Their findings were published in the Journal of Food Protection.

Results showed that about 44 percent of samples had detectable fecal contamination, about a quarter contained E.coli. Nitrate and nitrite were detected at higher than the allowable levels in 16 percent and 6 percent of samples, respectively.

Oliver said this is one of the most comprehensive screens for chemical and microbial contamination of water ever undertaken in Afghanistan. The hope is that it won’t be the last.

While the government doesn’t regularly test for water safety, graduates with lab skills can join industry, performing many more tests and pairing the findings with educational outreach that can improve water quality throughout the country.

“The water many people in Herat Province and elsewhere are drinking is unsafe,” Oliver said. “But this is an opportunity to use science to improve the safety of water and food throughout Afghanistan. That will have a significant effect on saving lives.”

Herat University professor Mohammad Alam Ghoryar teaches students in the food technology program.

Herat University professor Mohammad Alam Ghoryar teaches students in the food technology program.




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