Technology

How to deliver sound science in resource-poor regions

A well-equipped laboratory stocked with reagents and supplied with uninterrupted electricity and unlimited water can seem like a basic necessity to conduct research. But scientists who work in areas that have limited resources or are prone to conflict may not take such facilities lightly.

They must always seek out scarce grants, publish their own journals, form their own scientific societies and – importantly – draw on their deep reserves of resilience. Nature asked five such researchers how they run productive labs to cope with power outages, border checkpoint closures, poor Internet connections and other challenges.

Marlo Mendoza: Connect with Stakeholders

For the past 13 years, I have been profiling the pollution of the Marillao, Macauyan and Obando River Systems (MMORS), which was on the ‘Dirty 30′ list of the world’s most polluted places in 2007, according to the non-profit organization Pure Earth. Upstream are several polluting industries, including the Philippines’ largest lead smelter, gold smelter, jewelry workshops and tanneries.

Downstream are fish farms. We found elevated levels of heavy metals in water, sediments and in fish, especially shellfish, that are sold in local markets (M. E. T. Mendoza et al. J. Nutr. Std. 11, 1–18; 2012). At least 100,000 people in the municipalities of Marillao, Macauyan and Obando and in the metropolitan Manila area are eating contaminated fish.

There is no toxicologist in this field who can accurately diagnose diseases associated with heavy metal ingestion. So when we looked at the medical records, there was no entry for heavy-metal poisoning. If we cannot prove that these metals are harming people, it is very difficult to persuade policy makers and local officials to take action. We don’t have any local labs that can analyze heavy metals found in fish, or water or blood samples.

Local officials, governors and some mayors were actually hostile as the fishing industry is a major source of income for these municipalities. I have been very careful from the start to always update the mayors about my projects, and have local and regional government representatives with me whenever I carry out my monitoring activities. I don’t do anything without their consent and am very transparent in my work.

One of my strategies was to build a network of stakeholders – including national agencies such as the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – who share my concerns. I also built good relations with the people living in the area.

There are many associations for fishermen and leather makers in these areas, and we work with them and involve them in consultations and meetings about water-quality management. Our project helped to declare the area as a legally designated water-quality management zone. So we are able to continue our work.

We used funds from Pure Earth to conduct routine longitudinal sampling across sections of the river system, including sediment, water, fish and other aquatic life.

There is a problem with collecting data and samples, as it is expensive and national and local governments have limited funds. There is also no single repository of data with which monitoring can be more effectively planned and analyzed.

Our monitoring results were incorporated into a Pure Earth database that was shared with other stakeholders, including regional environmental-management offices and local government units. In turn, this encouraged those agencies to study our work and share their data.

So I was able to obtain funding from the Asian Development Bank, Green Cross Switzerland and Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, as well as a small amount from The Coca-Cola Company to conduct environmental monitoring – including the evaluation of heavy metals in selected aquatic organisms.

Emanuel I. Unuabonah: Use Available Resources

Potable water is a challenge for us here in Africa and around the world: around 1.8 billion people around the world get their drinking water from a source that is polluted with sewage.

As part of our work, we are developing hybrid clay composites to adsorb enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella species and Vibrio cholerae, from water. We also use composites made from readily available materials such as kaolinite clay, papaya seeds and banana peels to remove heavy metals from water.

We are not funded by the government. On an average, we do not have electricity for about 100 days in a year. We have an alternate utility on campus, so when the power to the national grid is turned off during working hours, the generator is turned on. If we’re lucky over time, we’re guaranteed 36 hours of uninterrupted power to run the experiments.

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