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Faculty member consults on water and sanitation challenges in Africa
Posted Friday, June 29, 2018


Dr. Willie Harper (blue shirt, 4th person from the left) met with stakeholders in Nagou, a small, remote village in northern Togo. Harper, a professor in the Environmental Engineering and Science program at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was selected to work with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Lome, Togo, as part of the Embassy Science Fellowship program.

Dr. Willie Harper, a Professor in the Environmental Engineering and Science program at the Air Force Institute of Technology, was selected to work with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Lome, Togo as part of the Embassy Science Fellowship program. During his two-month assignment, he went on site visits across the country, met with local stakeholders to discuss strategic planning, participated in public meetings and recommended solutions to water and sanitation problems.

The Embassy Science Fellowship program provides U.S. embassies access to the expertise of U.S. government officers to assist on science, technology, environment, or health issues throughout the world.  Managed by the U.S. Department of State, almost 450 Fellows have participated in the program since its inception in 2001.  Dr. Harper is the first AFIT faculty member to be selected for the program.

For Harper, the fellowship was an opportunity not only to help the people of Togo, but also to get material for his classes as well as provide ideas for future research areas.  “I have an interest in looking at water and sanitation management under austere conditions.  Our students are interested in situations where they are deployed in a forward area or desert environment and have to handle issues related to how troops can get clean water or handle sanitation issues,” said Harper. 

Togo is a tropical, francophone nation located in West Africa with a population of approximately 7.6 million.  At roughly 22,000 square miles, it is one of the smallest countries in Africa.  The economy depends on agriculture as well as mining – primarily phosphate deposits.  “Togo is the kind of country that really is a developing country.  They have a lot of communities that are resource limited and very poor with many people living on less than a dollar a day,” said Harper.

“The first thing that struck me was that there isn’t any sewage treatment in Togo except for one small plant in the middle of the country.  In some cases, sewage is collected and then released into rivers and lakes, creating a serious public health problem. This is a problem for big cities and villages,” said Harper. 

In rural areas of the country, access to potable water is very difficult.  Well over 80% of the population is not served by a water utility.  “A lot of women and children walk long distances to bore holes where they collect water and carry it, usually on their head, back home.  In many cases people are walking miles – well over an hour each way – to collect water,” said Harper.

While in Togo, Harper met with representatives of non-profit organizations like the Peace Corps, government and private organizations where they discussed initiatives and education to advocate for better water and sanitation conditions.  He also toured a new wastewater treatment plant, dams, bore hole repair projects, and rainwater collection systems.

The highlight of the trip for Harper was a series of lectures that he gave on quality control for drinking water, water policy for improved agricultural production and treatment and management of wastewater.  “Many stakeholders from Togo attended those talks and they were really interested in the issues and there was a really good exchange of ideas – bordering on debate - about what should be done.  It gave me a chance to speak candidly to government officials about what should be done.  It also gave me the chance to talk to a lot of the college students about what I think they can do to raise awareness and improve these issues,” said Harper.

Harper met with the Minister of Water, Antoine Lekpa Gbegbeni, and his leadership team to discuss what the ministry is trying to do to improve water and sanitation.  “He made it very clear that their resource limitations make it difficult to meet the needs of the people.  But he also seemed genuinely interested in dealing with the low hanging fruit – those things that are easy to do and can have a big impact and don’t take a lot of money,” said Harper.  During the meeting, Harper and the Ministry team identified some short-term actions to take that can make a significant difference without a large investment of time and money.  For example, Harper identified ways which the Ministry could easily carryout water quality measurements to ensure water coming from the bore holes is clean.

The time in Togo revealed to Harper that there are also non-technical factors with water and sanitation that he wants to share with his students.  “I realize that when we talk austere conditions here at AFIT we are often talking about the contingency environment where people are forward deployed and ultimately fighting an enemy.  But, our military is also involved in humanitarian work as well.  Given that fact, in my class, I want to do a bit more to talk about the economic and political realities that we are faced with when delivering humanitarian assistance,” said Harper. 

“For me this was a good trip because I was able to think about how to apply the science that I teach and research.  I am glad that I did it,” said Harper. “I also noticed that when I discussed science with Togolese scientists, the language barriers disappeared! I witnessed first-hand the power of science as a force for bringing people together.”

Harper received his doctorate degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley where he studied biological phosphorus removal. His current research projects are focused on water quality, specifically infrastructure security, transformation of organic chemicals, advanced oxidation and chemical sensing.  He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and has been honored with several awards, including the 2016 John L. McLucas Basic Research Award and the 2013 Fulbright Scholar Award.