Improving water accessibility for global health


- Sarah Tarnopolsky

UVic civil engineering PhD student Alexandra Cassivi tests water samples in Malawi. Photo: Alexandra Cassivi

Donors are addressing world environmental challenges through graduate awards

The tap in Alexandra Cassivi’s rented apartment squeaked, sputtered and coughed out a few drops of water. Cassivi sighed heavily. This was her third day without water in Blanryre, Malawi. She was already physically and emotionally tired from the past few weeks of field work. Rather than bring her down, this latest water shortage further deepened her resolve. Access to safe water was a daily challenge for the families she interviewed. After seeing the effects of water scarcity firsthand, Alexandra knew she wanted to dedicate her career to improving global water accessibility.

After her third and final research trip to Malawi, Cassivi returned to Canada to work on her dissertation. While she usually did some teaching in the fall, her supervisor agreed she should prioritise writing. So when Cassivi received the John and Myrtle Tilley Graduate Scholarship, she felt a renewed mental and physical energy. The award allowed her to focus all her attention for her last semesters on her thesis, translating those years of rewarding but challenging field research into her contribution to help governments and NGOs tackle world water issues. 

“I was already passionate about water accessibility, but field work made me realize this is exactly what I should be doing—using science to make the world a better place,” she wrote to the donors behind the award.

Canada’s greenest civil engineering program a good fit

Cassivi was one of the first students to start a PhD in civil engineering at UVic. Here, in Canada’s greenest civil engineering program, research focuses on addressing the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, including water sustainability. “Safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene are considered basic human rights,” says her supervisor, UVic professor Caetano Dorea. “Together they form the three-pronged approach to safeguarding global health.”

With a background in geography and public health, Cassivi interned with the World Health Organization’s water and sanitation department before deciding to pursue doctoral research. Like Dorea, she wanted to work at the crossroads of environmental and public health engineering. She joined Dorea’s multi-disciplinary team at UVic’s Public Health & Environmental Engineering (PH2E) Lab in 2017.

Comparing water quality at the source and in the cup

Water source in Malawi, a land-locked country in South-Eastern Africa
Even when a water source is relatively clean, contamination may take place during transportation or storage. Water source in Malawi. Photo: Alexandra Cassivi

As of 2015, 92% of the population in Malawi—a land-locked country in South-Eastern Africa—did not have access to water on premises and needed to fetch it. Cassivi specifically investigates water contamination caused by transportation and storage. This research aligns well with a central aim of the PH2E lab, finding solutions to water problems that can be maintained by local people after the engineers go home. “The human factor” must be considered at every stage, says Dorea. “If we treat water and people then collect it in a dirty bucket, that’s not going to work.”

Cassivi hired and trained a group of six local enumerators to help gather data through questionnaires, observations and water quality testing. They worked in three sites; two urban settlements and one rural village. The research showed that, even when the water source was clean, safe and relatively close, there was very high deterioration in water quality between the water source and drinking vessels at home.

“By recording that contamination was taking place between the source and the cup, we showed that the way in which people collect and store water is enormously important,” says Cassivi. She was also able to compare what people did, with what they self-reported, making a clear case for better public education around water collection and transportation.

Throughout her research, Cassivi worked closely with partners at the University of Malawi, who are creating recommendations for government. She hopes this research will also inform public health and environmental interventions and improvements on water issues elsewhere in the world.

Alexandra Cassivi's team in Malawi
Cassivi with her research assistant and team of local enumerators. Photo: Alexandra Cassivi

Applying her knowledge closer to home

When including a gift to support scholarships at UVic in their Will, John and Myrtle Tilley could not have foreseen the far reach of that gift across the globe.

“In addition to NSERC and other sources of funding, donor awards can help attract highly motivated and talented graduate students to our lab,” says Dorea. His growing research group appeals to scientists and engineers who, like Cassivi, are inspired by the potential humanitarian applications of their work.

Cassivi is already looking forward to the next step in her research career, a project addressing water supply and water quality issues in Nunavik.

“Water is a big issue in Canada, even though we have lots of it available,” she says. “Now I want to apply my skills and expertise in our northern communities.”

I firmly believe science can ensure world sustainability. Donors who support my research fuel my conviction of being able to change the world.
— Alexandra Cassivi, UVic PhD student


In this story

Keywords: international, scholarship, civil engineering, philanthropy, graduate research, water, sustainability, humanitarian, planned giving

People: Alexandra Cassivi, Caetano C. Dorea

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