Transforming access to clean water through decentralized treatment solutions

Dr. Sara Beck
Dr. Sara Beck, an assistant professor at UBC Civil Engineering, is advancing research aimed at removing microbial and chemical contaminants from water and wastewater in decentralized settings.
This article originally appeared on

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 outlines the need for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. However, drinking water sources worldwide are heavily contaminated and wastewater is often untreated before discharge into the environment, contributing to the spread of disease. Dr. Sara Beck, an assistant professor at UBC Civil Engineering, is advancing research aimed at removing microbial and chemical contaminants from water and wastewater in decentralized settings.

Beck is receiving funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF) to advance her group’s work on decentralized water and sanitation systems.

Decentralized water treatment systems, which treat water at the point of collection or point of use, differ significantly from centralized ones in their scale, operation, maintenance and cost. In decentralized settings, there is a lack of municipal engineering infrastructure, necessitating alternative approaches tailored to local contexts where conventional approaches are not feasible. Beck emphasizes the importance of advocating for water treatment systems at smaller scales, ensuring that communities have access to clean water for both drinking and irrigation.

“The pressing question that prompts this research is how do you achieve the same efficacy of water treatment at smaller scales with limited resources,” said Beck.

The foundation of Beck’s work lies in the pressing need to address water quality issues in communities lacking centralized treatment infrastructure. Her motivation stems from personal experiences, notably through involvement with Engineers Without Borders-USA working in rural communities in Uganda, El Salvador and Nicaragua, where they encountered the stark reality of communities relying on untreated water sources.

Rainwater harvesting
Postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Paul Onkundi Nyangaresi (left), testing water from a rainwater harvesting and treatment system.

Implementing decentralized systems comes with its challenges. Beck highlights the need for sustainable and cost-effective technologies that can reliably remove contaminants. Moreover, operational and maintenance considerations are crucial to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of these systems.

Securing funding from prestigious institutions like the CFI and BCKDF is instrumental in advancing this research. Central to her research is the acquisition of equipment for a microbiology lab, which will enable Beck and her research team to identify bacterial, viral and microplastic contaminants of concern in surface water, groundwater, and cisterns, and also to enable the investigation of simplified filtration and disinfection methods for removing, inactivating, or degrading the contaminants.

The impact of this research extends beyond the laboratory, with the potential to improve water quality in regions with limited access to centralized treatment facilities, such as smaller rural communities in East Africa. Implementing decentralized treatment systems in households or community-scale systems, such as schools, could safeguard public health and enhance overall well-being.

Beck envisions scalability and sustainability as essential aspects of her research. She is exploring collaborations with other researchers to expand her solutions beyond her current focus areas, including regions in British Columbia, demonstrating the feasibility of widespread implementation.

UBC Crest The official logo of the University of British Columbia. Arrow An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Caret An arrowhead indicating direction. E-commerce Cart A shopping cart. Time A clock. Chats Two speech clouds. Facebook The logo for the Facebook social media service. Social Media The globe is the default icon for a social media platform. TikTok The logo for the TikTok social media platform. Calendar Location Home A house in silhouette. Information The letter 'i' in a circle. Instagram The logo for the Instagram social media service. Linkedin The logo for the LinkedIn social media service. Location Pin A map location pin. Mail An envelope. Telephone An antique telephone. Play A media play button. Search A magnifying glass. Arrow indicating share action A directional arrow. Speech Bubble A speech bubble. Star An outline of a star. Twitter The logo for the Twitter social media service. Urgent Message An exclamation mark in a speech bubble. User A silhouette of a person. Vimeo The logo for the Vimeo video sharing service. Youtube The logo for the YouTube video sharing service. Future of work A logo for the Future of Work category. Inclusive leadership A logo for the Inclusive leadership category. Planetary health A logo for the Planetary health category. Solutions for people A logo for the Solutions for people category. Thriving cities A logo for the Thriving cities category. University for future A logo for the University for future category.