Mzuzu University Centre for Excellence in Water and Sanitation laboratory
by Rochelle Holm, analytical services manager,
Vista Engineering Technologies, Inc.
Groundwater sample tested positive for the presence of total
coliforms at the Mzuzu University Centre for Excellence in Water
and Sanitation laboratory (Holm Photo 2012)
The growing population in developing countries, such as Malawi, combined with a lack of strict environmental safeguards, has given rise to serious concerns about water quality, and the associated threats to human health and the environment. Despite the dire need for analytical water quality data
to protect human health, most areas of these countries do not have an environmental laboratory. Diarrheal
diseases, often associated with unsafe drinking water, can be blamed for more than 6,000 deaths of children
under five years old in Malawi (World Health Organization, 2010). One of the challenges of providing safe
drinking water in developing countries is the false sense of safety that visually “clear” water gives, as it hides
many chemical and microbial contaminants.
As a Washington State University (WSU) doctoral candidate in environmental and natural resource sciences
last year, I researched water resources in Africa, and used my experience working in environmental laboratories—along with a bit of creativity and sweat—to help establish a water quality laboratory in Malawi. In
collaboration with WSU, the newly established Mzuzu University Centre for Excellence in Water and Sanitation
laboratory is Malawi’s first-ever publicly accessible environmental lab in the northern region of Malawi. Staffed
with trained technicians, the laboratory is set up to process samples amid Malawi’s frequent municipal water
and power cuts, and anyone can request a water sample test. The lab’s Hach mColiBlue method allows for the
simultaneous testing of both coliforms and E. coli.
Results from the first water study utilizing the environmental lab indicated E. coli in some water sources at
more than 6,000 colonies per 100 ml sample. Sample dilutions of up to 1 to 50 were required in some cases.
Malawi’s new environmental laboratory will enable better decision making about development projects, taking
into account the environmental/public health issues within this developing country.