Professor Rita Colwell, 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureate, honoured for revolutionising fight against waterborne diseases

Image credit: University of Maryland

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 recipient of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018.

Professor Colwell’s accomplishments and commitment to the pursuit of science and its application have been exceptional. Over her immensely rich and multi-faceted career which continues till today, she has benefitted the lives of millions worldwide through her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance and her tireless efforts in building upon these insights to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases.


Challenging conventions and revolutionising scientific approaches

With some three in ten people in the world – or 2.1 billion – lacking access to safe water at home, providing access to safely managed water is critical. Contaminated drinking water alone is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths per year, as well as roughly ten per cent of (361,000) of all child deaths under five years of age. Poor sanitation and contaminated water are also linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.

Professor Colwell’s discoveries and innovations have fundamentally changed the way the world thinks of water microbiology.

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, terms as “viable but non-culturable” (VBNC), highlighted that the use of traditional culture-based methods to safety of water was not adequate. This breakthrough discovery was met with scepticism from prominent scientists at the time, but has now been shown to exist in more than 50 species of bacteria, including many pathogens.

Building upon her discovery of the VNBC 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 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.

Another breakthrough discovery by Professor Colwell was her earlier work in the 1970s on Vibrio cholerae. 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 associate 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 filters to dramatically reduce drinking water contamination. In particular, the use of sari cloth filters successfully led to the rapid reduction of the incidence of cholera in Bangladesh by 48 per cent in 65 villages of rural Bangladesh, and has also been applied in other cholera-endemic areas such as India and South America.

The model she developed has also been successfully refined, such that outbreaks can now be predicted with a few months’ lead time. This model can be further generalised to related waterborne diseases and applied in both developing and developed countries.

Beyond the study of cholera, this explanation of the critical linkage between changes in environmental conditions and disease was significant in leading to further research in the 1990s that showed that climate change could considerably affect the prevalence and spread of human diseases.

In this way, Professor Colwell has applied her scientific knowledge in the most practicable and effective manner to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases, and bring about maximum impact on human health for the community.


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 United States (U.S.) Government, non-profit organisations, as well as scientific advisory boards. Her work spans the globe, from Africa, Bangladesh, India, Singapore, as well as 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.

As the 8th Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureate, Professor Colwell will deliver the Singapore Water Lecture on the 9th of July 2018. She will also receive the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize at the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet on the same night. One of the flagship programmes of the Singapore International Water Week, which will be held from the 8th to the 12th of July 2018, co-located with the World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, the 8th Singapore International Water Week will feature a range of flagship programmes and platforms that bring together the global water value chain to share the latest in business and technological innovations, as well as policy developments in water.

“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, on this significant occasion, which takes place on World Water Day and in conjunction with the launch of the International Decade of Action “Water for Sustainable Development”,” Professor Colwell said. “I am confident the pioneering spirit and innovative mindset represented by the Water Prize will further encourage future generations of talents to realise our shared goal of providing access to safe water for all.”