Water Quality Testing: It’s Not Rocket Science!

Children draw safe water from their community's tap in Malawi.


We have previously written that Water Mission strongly supports the global shift of focus to “safely-managed” drinking water services. We believe all people deserve access to water that does not pose a risk to their health over a lifetime of use. From our founding, we have stressed the importance of ensuring that the water we supply is not only accessible, but safe. Of course, the only way to ensure that water is safe is to test it, even if it comes from a source that is assumed to be protected from outside contamination.

Testing the quality of water in Uganda.

Our experience confirms this assumption — over half of the groundwater samples we have ever taken from drilled “protected” boreholes have tested positive for fecal contamination. For this reason, consistent and reliable water quality necessitates treatment. At the very least, a small amount of residual chlorine should be added in order to protect water during collection, transport, and storage. 

Slight residual chlorine in the water keeps it safe throughout collection, transport, and storage.

On the global scale, quality data on drinking water is aggregated by the UNICEF/World Health Organization’s Joint Monitoring Programme, which relies entirely on country-led reporting mechanisms. This means that global progress toward the goal of universal safely-managed drinking water will require stronger national water quality monitoring systems, enforceable regulations, and certified labs that are accessible and affordable even for remote and resource-limited communities.

Although some countries have made progress toward developing the capacity to monitor the quality of their drinking water, as highlighted in this session at last year’s Stockholm World Water Week, many challenges still remain particularly in rural areas. National labs face logistical and administrative challenges, as described in this post on the World Bank water blog. In many cases there are simply not enough labs, or the ones that do exist do not generate the data that is necessary to adequately manage water quality.

A beautiful, rural Malawi landscape.

Although the institutional systems required for adequate water quality monitoring and responsive feedback loops are complex and challenging, the water quality testing methods themselves are not as complicated as they may seem.

Simple tests are available for physical and chemical parameters that can be used to evaluate water quality quickly and cost-efficiently. We described the type of field-based water quality testing that Water Mission does in this blog post. In particular, we have had good experience with the following user-friendly, inexpensive tools offered by our strategic partner, Hach Company. (Hach offers special discounts to humanitarian organizations. If you are interested in more details, please contact us.)

  • Portable turbidimeter for testing turbidity (cloudiness caused by particles in the water)
  • Test strips and colorimeter with appropriate reagents for testing chemical water quality parameters such as hardness, iron, manganese, nitrate/nitrite, phosphate, and sulfate
  • Handheld Pocket Pro for testing pH, conductivity, TDS, and salinity
  • Portable membrane filtration kit with a portable incubator that we assemble in-house for testing microbiological water quality
  • Test strips, color wheel test kit, and colorimeter with appropriate reagents for testing total and free chlorine concentration
Using our partner HACH’s equipment to test water quality in Puerto Rico.

Using HACH equipment to test water quality in Puerto Rico.

Many of these tests are simple and inexpensive enough to be procured and conducted by rural water committees. When combined with appropriate microbiological tests such as the Aquagenx Compartment Bag Test, rural communities can be fully empowered to test and ensure that their water is safe to drink.

Ideally, this type of community-led water quality testing can be integrated into a comprehensive system where periodic in-depth surveillance testing done by trained technicians and certified labs — and perhaps even remote sensing of appropriate parameters such as oxidation-reduction potential (a proxy for chlorine residual) — provides validation and enables timely response to critical issues. At Water Mission, we are working to build such a multifaceted water quality monitoring system for our global programs that utilizes water quality data from multiple sources in a web-based data alerting and analysis dashboard described in this recent blog post.

Water quality testing is not rocket science. In fact, you don’t have to be a certified lab technician to do it! All agencies involved in water service delivery — from public sector to civil society, professional to novice — can (and should) engage in water quality testing. Furthermore, local communities can and should be empowered to test their own water quality by utilizing established labs as well as low-cost, simple testing methods. The sooner this level of widespread competency is built into national water quality monitoring and shared data systems, the sooner everyone in the world will enjoy access to safely-managed drinking water.

A group of active community members in Uganda discusses their water system.

Contact us for more information about our water quality testing processes or products.

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