Someone know a good plumber?

Let’s hit the nail on the head from the off. For countries such as Africa, water is scarce. Nearly 1 billion of the world’s population are lacking an adequate supply and roughly double that don’t even have access to acceptable sanitation facilities. Now get your head around this: ‘adequate’ means a single tap shared by hundreds of people. How wrong is that?

But the challenge of giving the world clean running water is completely nuts. David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government tells it like it is: ‘ If we had the engineering capacity in the developing world to build the water supply, drainage and sewerage system for a city of a million people every week, we would have to keep going for 50 years before everyone was provided for.’

It’s an uphill struggle and that’s no exaggeration. And while water is right up there in the priority stakes, further down the list other basics need attention too. Things like roads.

Roads in developing countries don’t have tarmac. They don’t have markings and they certainly don’t have fancy service stations where you can park up and tuck into a burger. In developing countries they’re nothing more than dust tracks – and it’s a compliment to even call them that. But when the engineers of the Transport Research Laboratory caught whiff of this, enough was enough.

They stuck their necks on the line by giving local engineers and governments the knowledge they needed. Help like technical information and training so they could then plan, design, build and maintain their own safe road networks. They take a look at where the accidents happen and use some cunning statistics to work out what road features cause them. Then they design affordable solutions like better drainage, signs or wider footpaths. It doesn’t take much does it.

But don’t leave the goodwill to the folk of TRL. You can be handing it out too. The Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is a charity that sorts it out for professionals to work in developing countries for a couple of years. One person that took the VSO up on their offer was Zonya Jeffrey. Her happy words are here: http://network.nature.com/profile/zonya

You can help transfer scientific knowledge to the poorest people in the world as:

  • An agricultural scientist researching ways for poor farmers to manage their farms more efficiently
  • civil engineer applying your skills to help improve infrastructure, such as road networks, in developing countries
  • volunteer scientist, engineer or health care worker, working for VSO or another development charity
  • civil servant at the Department for International Development, deciding which research projects should be funded
  • fundraiser for a development charity
  • writer describing how science improves lives in the developing world
  • project manager organising research trips abroad and meetings between scientists from different countries
  • A science teacher at a school or university in a developing country, helping to build local scientific expertise