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Maimuna Nalubega, Ph.D, Chief Water Development Officer, African Development Bank

African women in science are making waves

February 12, 2021

To mark International Day for Women and Girls in Science, we asked contributors to the recently released Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa about the science that went into the Bank co-publication and their experiences as pioneering women in their field.

Maimuna Nalubega, Ph.D, Chief Water Development Officer, African Development Bank

Maimuna Nalubega, Ph.D, Chief Water Development Officer, African Development Bank
Maimuna Nalubega, Ph.D, Chief Water Development Officer, African Development Bank

Q: The Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa explores the links between sanitation and wastewater, and ecosystem health and human health. What role does science play in exploring those links?

The role that science plays in the link between sanitation and wastewater, ecosystem health and human health is rooted in the characteristics of water and its centrality to human and ecosystems health. Water of adequate quality and quantity is essential for human health and ecosystems health.

Water is called a universal solvent because of its ability to dissolve more substances than any other liquid. As it moves through the ground, the rivers and even the air, the quality of water changes with the contents of the medium. When we use technology to abstract water from its sources for domestic (or agricultural) uses, it is important that the water that is finally availed to users meets the required quality. scientists identify the most appropriate sources and means of abstraction of  water, and through research, identifies and optimizes the required treatment options to make the water potable or fit for the purpose.

Similarly, when we use water for domestic or industrial purposes,  it may not be suitable for return into the environment or water bodies. Without treatment, such water, or fecal sludge, will pollute the environment, spread diseases, and damage ecosystems. Scientists will quantify and characterize the wastewater, solid waste or fecal sludge and identify the best and most affordable options for treating this waste – including reuse.

Q: How did you apply your background as a public health and environmental engineer, postgraduate research on the role of wetlands on wastewater treatment and ecosystem protection, and current Bank position to collaborate on the Atlas?

In terms of my work on the Atlas, my experience in sanitary engineering training and research served three main purposes: for the conceptualization and design of the research project, along with our partners, UNEP and GRID-Arendal; to identify resource persons who could contribute to the preparation of the Atlas; and to review and provide feedback on the scientific content of the Atlas.

My primary role as a water and sanitation expert, and indeed the primary role of the Bank’s water development and sanitation department – which is in an operations complex – is not research. But we do collaborate with researchers to help identify solutions to specific problems.

Robinah Kulabako, Ph.D, Sr. Lecturer and Chair, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Makerere University; Lead author, Chapter 2, Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa

Robinah Kulabako, Ph.D, Sr. Lecturer and Chair, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Makerere University; Lead author, Chapter 2, Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa

Q: You led on the Atlas’ second chapter on wastewater streams. Can you point out where a scientific approach or methodology helped form the chapter conclusions that were reached?

We had to deploy scientific methodology: what is the source of this problem or what has been done about it? What is missing then? What could we recommend?

There was a lot of scientific research to review. It was not enough just to get the information. In science-based research, one needs to do what we call data analysis, so that you can make inferences from this data that will guide the conclusions that you draw.

For example, looking at industrial wastewater streams and effluents, we looked at the chain of effluent from major polluters in countries. The idea of ‘management,’ is that we ultimately protect the environment, given the quality as well as quantity of this effluent. Reviewing research studies and reports resulted in huge tables of data that we had to make palatable for the sake of the Atlas. One such huge table now appears as Figure 2.5 in the Atlas showing industrial effluent management in the African region. More palatable and pretty clear.

Q: In addition to your research, you are also a Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Makerere University in Uganda. You see the future of science in civil engineering in your classes. How does the future look for women and girls in science from where you sit?

I can actually see that the future for women and girls in science is gradually picking up. When I joined the department as an undergraduate student, we were only four girls in civil environmental engineering out of about 26 students. In the class before mine, there was only one girl. Over the years, I have seen the number of girls grow to between 30 to 40 now, in a class of about 100 students. And I must also confess, the performance of the girls has also improved with time: a few years ago we had a graduating class in civil engineering where six of the top ten graduates were girls.

At Makerere University, we have policies to promote women and girls to pursue technology, engineering, math programs…scholarships for training programs.

There are some challenges, the first one being fear, another is time demands on work and family. Some women and girls fear that maybe they will not manage, or they are made to believe that it is mostly males that are successful at pursuing this career.

I have faced this myself. When I was in high school, I believed I wanted to be an engineer. My class teacher at the time – a female – told me, “No, you cannot do engineering, that course is for males.” But I had family who encouraged me to pursue my passion. So, I quietly decided to do engineering without my teacher knowing. When she found out, she was not happy – she also said to me that if I pursue this engineering course, I will never get a man to marry me. Can you imagine?

I can tell you that the moment I graduated from university, I got married. This experience helped me realize that a teacher can limit their students – which is not a good thing.

Olufunke Cofie, Ph.D, Country Representative, International Water Management Institute – West Africa; Co-author, Chapter 6, Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa

Olufunke Cofie, Ph.D, Country Representative, International Water Management Institute – West Africa; Co-author, Chapter 6, Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa

Q: How would you describe the contribution of science-based research in determining the Atlas’ findings and recommendations?

The entire Atlas, including the findings and recommendations, were based on the body of knowledge generated from several investigations by diverse experts.

From available evidence, we were able to explain the state and trends in wastewater management and sanitation delivery in Africa, and to highlight the human health and ecosystem impacts of poor sanitation and wastewater management. We analyzed the pertinent policy and institutional arrangements and provided recommendations to progress towards achieving Africa’s Water Vision 2025 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2030(link is external).

However, one of the Atlas’ conclusions is that “there is little information and data on wastewater generation, collection and treatment, especially for industrial and agricultural wastewater streams, in the majority of African countries.”

So, any gaps in the Atlas are because scientific evidence is lacking or not accessible. Hence, the Atlas is not just about science-based research – equally important is accessible research results to inform policy and practice.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about why pursuing a degree in soil science appealed to you? To what degree is science your passion?

As a child, while helping my mum to prepare food for younger siblings, I often wondered how by adding water to custard powder, the color immediately changed from white to yellow slurry. It baffled me, so I developed an interest in chemistry, which happened to be my best subject in school.

I wanted to do science, but actually I was interested in pharmacy. But when I got to the point of selecting core subjects, my Uncle in an upper class at the same school told me, “You cannot do physics, drop it.”

I ended up dropping physics so I could not study pharmacy at university. I applied to study agricultural economics at the University of Nigeria-Nsukka, but when the admission letter came – I had been admitted into soil science. I must confess that was the first time I learned of soil science. I went in for it and later focused on soil chemistry, which allowed me to follow my childhood passion of studying something that would involve chemistry.

Q: When people say you are a role model for women and girls considering careers in science, you respond by saying…

Shine in your uniqueness. Your uniqueness is unique; your uniqueness distinguishes you.

*Source AfDB.Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. Learn more about the Sanitation and Wastewater Atlas for Africa via this link.

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