Alumni Profile - Dr Jacqueline Thomas

Jacquie ThomasBSc/BA (Hons), PhD Civil and Environmental Engineering 2012,
Senior Scientist, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research,
Ifakara Health Institute, Ifakara, Morogoro, Tanzania

In the East African country of Tanzania, 9% of all deaths of children aged under 5 occur from diarrhoeal disease in part due to poor water supply and low level sanitation. As a Senior Scientist working for the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, School PhD alumnus Dr Jacqueline Thomas is working on interventions that can make a huge difference to populations not just in Tanzania but around the world.

In Tanzania, water supply is typically taken from shallow open wells, many of which can be easily contaminated by pit latrines. Interventions are a proven means to reduced diarrhoeal disease risk by around a third. Jacquie is researching the effectiveness of household level water and sanitation interventions that could be brought to scale via market demand.

Jacquie and her team are developing an innovative chlorine dosing mechanism for locallymade ceramic filter pots to achieve complete household-level drinking water treatment for low-income communities. But how do you stop this contamination of water supplies in the first place? You need to find an appropriate treatment solution and an end-use for the faecal sludge. Jacquie is currently looking at ways of addressing this.

There are two main issues that direct the research focus. Firstly, there is limited agricultural productivity due to the expense of commercial mineral fertilisers in Tanzania. Secondly, only about 20% of the population is connected to electricity, so most people use charcoal to cook with - which results in rampant deforestation.

“The challenge in developing countries is providing drinking water and safe sanitation,” she says, “using techniques and technologies that people can afford to pay for, that can be locally produced and that are sustainable”.

Dr Thomas worked with a team that developed a rice huskfired furnace to sterilise human waste and recapture nutrients and energy, creating safe biosolids for agricultural reuse. Then, via pyrolysis of dried faecal sludge, biochar brickets can be produced to replace the use of charcoal from virgin forests. The whole system can be operated by local entrepreneurs and will hopefully motivate significant up-take of ecologically sound sanitation.

Jacquie’s greatest challenge has been advocating for change, seeing a problem and a way to address it but having to take on the cultural, economic and political barriers involved to make things happen. However, she hopes that her work will continue to make a difference, and more local communities can benefit from the technology her project has developed.