PhD: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Challenging Environments

RMIT University

Melbourne, VIC, AU

In 2015 it was estimated that almost a third of the global population lacked access to improved sanitation facilities with almost a billion-people having no access to any sanitation facilities resulting in open defecation [1]. Additionally, around 10% of the global population lack access to an improved source of drinking water [2]. Access to these essential services has been mandated by the Universal Declaration of Human rights for over 70 years [3] and yet thousands still suffer the adverse health effects [4].

The global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’S) provides the framework with which to achieve universal access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) services by 2030 [5]. Whilst huge progress is being made, spurred on by support from philanthropy such as the Gates Foundation [6] the biggest gains are being seen in urban environments or where installing engineered infrastructure is relatively simple.

Not all people live in contexts where traditional WaSH engineering infrastructure and services are appropriate. These ‘challenging environments’ have difficult geographical and/or geological conditions which may include high groundwater, rocky ground, flood affected areas or even housing on lakes. In Cambodia it is estimated that around 27% of the population (over 4 million people) live in challenging environments [6]. With so many people living in challenging environments and only 10 years remaining to achieve the SDG’s there is a pressing need to better understand how WaSH services can be implemented and adopted by communities living in challenging environments.

In this project, it is expected that the researcher will develop standards and guiding principles for the provision of WaSH services in challenging environments, focused on the Asia-Pacific region particularly Cambodia. Using a discovery based methodology including interviews, participatory observation and strengths mapping the researcher will investigate and overcome current barriers to WaSH services which may include technology, governance and funding.

The engineering NGO Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) has an established challenging environments program based in Cambodia and Vanuatu [8]. This research project will directly support the work of EWB who will act as the industry partner. It is expected that extensive fieldwork will be conducted in Cambodia and or Vanuatu for extended periods of time supported by EWB in country.



1] Orner, K.D. and Mihelcic, J.R. (2018), A review of sanitation technologies to achieve multiple sustainable development goals that promote resource recovery, Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology, 4, 16-32 DOI: 10.1039/C7EW00195A

[2] Pedro Martínez-Santos (2017) Does 91% of the world’s population really have “sustainable access to safe drinking water”?, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 33:4, 514-533, DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2017.1298517

[3] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), available at:

[4] Guidelines on sanitation and health. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

[5] Transforming our World: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, United Nations; 2015

[6] National systems to support drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene: global status report 2019. UN-Water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water (GLAAS) 2019 report. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2019. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

[7] Djonoputro, E., Blackett, I., Rosenboom, J., & Weitz, A. (2010). Understanding sanitation options in challenging environments. Waterlines, 29(3), 186-203. Retrieved from

[8] Bukauskas, K. and Michael, H., 2015. Sanitation in challenging environments (SCE) project: mobilising sector engagement and innovation in Cambodia. In: Shaw, R.J. (ed). Water, sanitation and hygiene services beyond 2015 – improving access and sustainability: proceedings of the 38th wedc international conference, Loughborough, UK, 27-31 July 2015, 5pp.


Associate Professor Matthew Currell

Dr Nick Brown

Dr Andrew Drain

Want to learn more?

For more information about the project and funding opportunities, please contact:

Dr Nick Brown: [email protected]