The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has created a mobile lab for water testing, amid various sewage spills in South Africa.
The Transnet National Ports Authority reported earlier this month that it had prohibited angling and diving activity at the Durban port, owing to a massive sewage spill in the area.
Further, 200 South African National Defence Force technical team members were called out to aid at the Vaal dam in November last year, under similar circumstances.
Additionally, regional flooding caused by cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique and Zimbabwe had wreaked havoc in those countries, as well as along the coast of Southern Africa.
Amid these sewage spills and flooding, drinking water is contaminated by waste or by pollution, putting people at risk of contracting waterborne diseases.
Therefore, it remains critical that water gets tested in these situations, with a quick turnaround time for results, to confirm water is safe for use, says UJ Water and Health Research Centre director Professor TG Barnard.
He adds that water analysis often takes hours, owing to laboratory staff having to drive back and forth to far locations to reach laboratories. It also takes time to set up a lab from scratch in a remote location.
Barnard notes that having a lab on site makes a big difference to whether people getting ill, as it enables the testing of water at household level and getting the results quickly.
The mobile water lab that UJ has designed can operate offgrid, has high road clearance and is towed by a 4 x 4 vehicle.
“What makes the mobile lab different is that can be parked on site and that some staff can start working, while others go to collect the water samples. You can do science on site, continuously, 24 hours a day, without the need to go back and forth between accommodation and a fixed laboratory in a city. The shift that needs sleep can camp in the side tent of the lab.
“We built the lab around the typical tests we would do, which are guided by the South African national standards for drinking water quality. We built it to do the basic tests for that, which includes E. coli testing as an indicator of faecal pollution. If you find E. coli in the water, there is a good possibility that other organisms that cause disease, could be present. Then you know to expand the testing,” he says.
The organisms that are typically tested for are the bacteria that cause dysentery, typhoid fever and cholera. These types of diseases cause severe diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting.
The laboratory design is much like a “shell” that can be customised, Barnard explains.
“The space inside was set up so you can bring in different types of equipment to do different types of analysis, to test for different types of bacteria. We designed it with a lot of space so that multiple testing equipment can go along. Then if you find that you have to test for typhoid, dysentery or cholera, you can easily adapt your setup on site, and test for it.
“The mobile lab runs its sample fridge and incubator, analysis equipment and air-conditioning on solar panels, a generator and batteries. The lab carries its own safe water supply and a side tent to accommodate more testing equipment and staff needing shelter. Because it can operate without grid electricity or water, the mobile lab can stay on site for several days if needed.”