University of Notre Dame du Lac

Solving schistosomiasis and food, water, and energy shortages in Africa Highly Ranked

Infectious and parasitic diseases

We reduce schistosomiasis and increase food, water, and energy access by removing aquatic vegetation and converting it to compost, livestock feed, and cooking gas.

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Project Summary

Food, water, and energy shortages and infectious diseases torment marginalized populations in the developing world. By removing aquatic vegetation from water access points, we can increase open water access needed by villagers and reduce schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease caused by snails with >1/10th of the global population at risk. Converting this vegetation to compost or livestock feed significantly increases food production, and using it as fuel in biodigesters offers both fertilizer and cooking gas. Thus, a single intervention has enormous potential to simultaneously and sustainably address food, water, and energy shortages and a rampant infectious disease. To scale this solution in West and East Africa, we use satellite imagery to map locations of this vegetation, machine learning to geographically target this intervention, and cell phone alert systems. There is also potential to mechanize vegetation removal and scale throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Problem Statement

Food, water, and energy shortages and infectious diseases torment historically marginalized people in the developing world. For example, i) >225 million people are undernourished in Africa, ii) Sub-Saharan Africa loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water, partly because vegetation is choking-out water access points, iii) the World Bank has declared 32 of 48 African nations in an energy crisis, and iv) 75% of deaths in the developing world can be attributable to infectious disease. Our team has seen these tragedies and social inequities with our own eyes in Africa, where we study food, water, and energy issues and schistosomiasis, the second most socioeconomically burdensome neglected tropical disease globally. Schistosomiasis is caused by snail-transmitted flatworms that penetrate human skin (Fig. 1), defies control efforts, reinforces poverty, and devastates children. Mass drug administration (MDA) to treat schistosomiasis covers 99% of snails are captured in Ceratophyllum demersum (Fig. 2-6), an aquatic plant that has a mutualistic relationship with Schistosoma-harboring snails and is found throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America where schistosomiasis is endemic. What is needed is a sustainable, local solution with stakeholder commitment to maintain cleared waterways, and a viable scaling plan to reduce schistosomiasis while simultaneously addressing food, water, and energy shortages. The more co-benefits, the greater stakeholder involvement, and the clearer the scaling plan a solution has, the more widespread its adoption will be and the more lives it will improve.

Solution Overview

Our solution is elegantly simple. Remove aquatic vegetation quarterly from water access points to remove snail habitat and snails that cause human schistosomiasis (Fig. 6-8). This will increase open water necessary for obtaining water for cooking and washing clothes. Open water can be in shortage because of aquatic plant overgrowth [8]. The next step is to close the nutrient loop, returning aquatic plant biomass fueled by runoff back to food and energy production. To accomplish this, we are assessing the cost-effectiveness of three complementary approaches: 1) convert aquatic vegetation to compost to increase crop yields, 2) feed aquatic vegetation to livestock to increase milk and meat production, and/or 3) use the vegetation to fuel biodigesters that produce fertilizer and gas for cooking or electricity production (Fig. 9-11). Finally, through satellite imagery, we can detect the aquatic vegetation preferred by schistosomiasis-causing snails to target our intervention where it is needed the most (Fig. 12). We are also evaluating incentives for communities to maintain cleared waterways and cell-phone-alert systems guided by “real-time” remote sensing to inform communities of spatiotemporal risk and need for vegetation removal. We will know we are making progress by tracking 1) schistosomiasis prevalence, 2) open water access, 3) crop, milk, livestock, and energy production, and 4) adoption of the intervention. Over five years, we expect to have adoption throughout West Africa and nascent, widespread training and adoption programs in East Africa. We expect these programs to have both deep, intense impacts locally and broad impacts across Africa.

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