Improving Human and Environmental Health in Poor Rural Communities: Investigating the Potential for Sustainable Household Drinking Water Treatment in China

EPA Grant Number: FP917442
Title: Improving Human and Environmental Health in Poor Rural Communities: Investigating the Potential for Sustainable Household Drinking Water Treatment in China
Investigators: Cohen, Alasdair Gordon
Institution: University of California - Berkeley
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 1, 2012 through July 31, 2015
Project Amount: $136,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Environmental Science


The primary objective of this research is to understand if a drinking water treatment approach other than boiling could improve human and environmental health in rural China; and if so, under what conditions nonboiling HWT might be adopted. To accomplish this, the research will explore new methodologies for augmenting quantitative data with qualitative data to better inform the design of HWT promotion campaigns. Two primary research questions will guide the work: (1) Is a policy shift toward the promotion of non-boiling drinking water treatment in rural China warranted based on the potential benefits for human and environmental health? (2) If so, under what conditions are rural Chinese households likely to adopt non-boiling HWT?


These research questions will be addressed by collecting a wide range of quantitative and qualitative data at multiple scales in sparsely populated poor rural areas. This will include data on: water quality (microbial and chemical [as appropriate] for source water and drinking water); fuel usage (types [e.g., locally harvested biomass or coal], quantities used, and whether combusted indoors or outdoors); and the costs and time associated with collecting water and fuels. Socioeconomic, demographic and poverty-related data at the household and village levels will be collected, in addition to information on existing behaviors and beliefs related to drinking water and HWT. These data will provide a clearer picture of the potential need for alternative HWT as well as a better understanding of the negative environmental externalities linked to existing HWT practices. With this accomplished, it will be possible then to analyze these data and identify relevant associations among households and villages/regions based on their HWT practices (e.g., boiling, not boiling) and other variables (e.g., livelihood characteristics). Additional qualitative data will then be collected, via focus groups and key-informant interviews, to better understand the “whys” behind these statistical associations.

Expected Results:

This research will elucidate the most relevant behaviors and beliefs among groups and households with regard to HWT adoption. For the research community, the results of this study will add to the very limited knowledge and data on HWT in rural China. Furthermore, the findings will contribute to the broader research on HWT adoption and behavior change in rural areas, which is relevant especially to countries such as Mexico and Vietnam where many rural households also boil their water. The results also should demonstrate the potential environmental and health benefits of introducing non-boiling HWT in remote areas of rural China, which may in turn influence China’s rural development policy. Lastly, others might replicate this particular methodology of combining qualitative and quantitative methods to better inform the design of HWT promotion interventions elsewhere.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

An estimated 600 million rural Chinese regularly boil their drinking water. This research may reveal both a need for, and a means of, providing a more sustainable and less-harmful option for rural drinking water treatment. By switching to non-boiling HWT, human health and well-being should benefit from safe water, less respiratory disease (from reduced indoor air pollution), and more available time. Moreover, the environmental degradation that results from the needs-based harvesting of local biomass (and/or burning coal) should be reduced as well. The aggregated benefits to human and environmental health could be significant.

Supplemental Keywords:

drinking water, household water treatment, rural poverty

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2013
  • 2014
  • Final