May - Jun 2018
Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018 laureate honoured for revolutionising fight against waterborne diseases
June 28, 2018
On 22 March every year, World Water Day brings attention to the importance of water. The theme for World Water Day 2018 is Nature for Water—exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges we face in the 21st century. In conjunction with World Water Day and the launch of the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018–2028, Professor Rita R. Colwell was unveiled as the eighth recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018 on 22 March 2018.
Professor Colwell’s accomplishments and commitment to the pursuit of science and its application have been exceptional. Over her multifaceted career, she has benefitted the lives of millions worldwide through her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance as well as her tireless efforts in building upon these pivotal insights to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
In the 1980s, when culture-based methods were widely accepted as the gold standard for determining if disease-causing bacteria were alive, Professor Colwell’s laboratory discovered that bacteria can exist in a state in which they are alive and can cause harm even though they cannot be cultured. This phenomenon, termed as viable but non-culturable (VBNC), highlighted that the use of traditional culture-based methods to determine the safety of water was not adequate.
Building upon her discovery of the VBNC phenomenon, Professor Colwell was an early and active proponent of the use of novel molecular methods for more accurate and comprehensive diagnostics of water pathogens. She is the key inventor of an approach that uses whole genome sequencing and specialised databases to identify different strains of bacteria and to determine their virulence and resistance to antibiotics. In recent years, Professor Colwell has been focusing her efforts on translating the use of this rapid diagnostic technology (the GENIUS system by CosmosID, Inc.) to a wide range of applications that encompass drinking, recreational, agricultural and recycled waters.
A breakthrough discovery on Vibrio cholerae
In the 1970s, Professor Colwell discovered that Vibrio cholerae, which was previously thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside the human host, occurs naturally in the aquatic environment associated with plankton. This discovery highlighted the critical link between the environment and the cholera disease. It led to her subsequent application of satellite imagery and modelling to predict cholera outbreaks, and the innovative use of affordable sari cloth as filters to dramatically reduce drinking water contamination, successfully reducing the incidence of cholera by 48 per cent in 65 villages of rural Bangladesh. The model she developed has been successively refined, such that outbreaks can now be predicted with a few months’ lead time.
Shaping policy for global impact
In addition to her seminal scientific contributions, Professor Colwell is also an influential scientific advisor and public administrator who has led and shaped policy and practice through the numerous advisory and leadership positions she held in the U.S. government, non-profit organisations, as well as scientific advisory boards. Her work spans the globe, from Africa, Bangladesh, India and Singapore to Central and South America, where she has advised governments and communities in tackling cholera and other waterborne diseases. The knowledge she provided has been translated into better policies and improved water treatment in many parts of the world.
Professor Rita R. Colwell said, “I am truly honoured to be this year’s recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, one of the most prestigious global water accolades. I am confident that the pioneering spirit and innovative mindset represented by the award will further encourage future generations of talents to realise our shared goal of providing access to safe water for all.”
Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize
The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is one of the key highlights of the Singapore International Water Week, the global platform to share and co-create innovative water solutions. This award recognises outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving global water challenges by developing or applying innovative technologies, policies or programmes that benefit humanity.
The award was named after Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whose foresight and leadership has enabled Singapore to attain a sustainable water supply. It comes with a cash prize of SGD 300,000, an award certificate and a gold medallion. Madam Halimah Yacob, President of Singapore, will be the guest of honour at the Lee Kuan Yew Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet on 9 July 2018. Professor Colwell will deliver the Singapore Water Lecture during the ceremony as well.
Singapore International Water Week
The 8th Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) will be held from 8–12 July 2018, co-located with the World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore. SIWW is a global platform to share and co-create innovative water solutions.