Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week; 3 hours / session



Course Description

This course introduces students to fundamental concepts in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), especially in low-income settings, and focuses on transdisciplinary approaches to human-centered design and creative capacity building, including appropriate and sustainable technologies for WASH. The material draws on multiple fields of expertise, such as public health engineering, policy and planning, social entrepreneurship, human rights, and international studies.

We tackle the WASH challenge from a transdisciplinary perspective incorporating planning, engineering, environmental, cultural, public health, human rights, institutional, and financial perspectives. We consider factors such as technical efficacy, appropriateness (simple design, low cost, using local, easily available materials), human behavior, financial sustainability, institutional viability, and political will. Particular emphasis is on creative capacity building: the role of users as collaborators and self-empowered agents in design, planning, and project implementation. We will draw on specific case studies from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Students have the opportunity to pursue term projects and student-led tutorials that are of special interest. Upon completion of the course, students will be able to plan simple—yet reliable—WASH and environmental systems for low-resource settings that are compatible with local customs and available human and material resources. Although we focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene, the principles and modes of engagement are applicable to other types of human/infrastructure development. Graduate and undergraduate students from any department who are interested in international development at the grassroots level are encouraged to participate in this course.

This course is part of MIT D-Lab which works with people around the world to develop and advance collaborative approaches and practical solutions to global poverty challenges.

Course Objectives

  • Gain expertise in global WASH technologies and processes from multiple perspectives to a level that you could make a valuable contribution engaging with people and communities who haven’t yet realized the benefits of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene. 
  • Learn the patterns of domestic water use and waste disposal in low-resource settings.
  • Understand the social and cultural factors (e.g., maintenance and financial challenges, gender issues) that need to be considered and incorporated into the planning and implementation of WASH systems.
  • Strengthen dialogue and creative capacity building skills in order to partner effectively with diverse groups such as women, youth, the scientific and technical community, indigenous people, refugees and disaster victims, business and industry, government authorities, etc.
  • Recognize the role of community participation, governance, and finance in enabling WASH projects to succeed and become sustainable.
  • Be able to critically evaluate WASH interventions and technologies with respect to multiple criteria, with an understanding that a knowledge of the inter-relationship among multiple factors—cultural, social, economic, environmental, communication and emotional intelligence—are required alongside technical skills.
  • Plan and commence one specific project in a location of your choice, either as part of a team or as an individual term project.
  • Enjoy this course for the love of learning and to strengthen your sense of meaning, purpose, and hope in a 21st century that has huge equity and justice challenges with which we could all engage.


Mihelcic, James, Lauren Fry, et al. Field Guide to Environmental Engineering for Development Workers: Water, Sanitation, and Indoor Air. American Society of Civil Engineers Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780784409855.


Bartram, Jamie. Routledge Handbook of Water and Health. Routledge, 2018. ISBN: 9781138495302.


Topics Percentages
In-Class Participation 20%
Reading Discussions and Forum Comments 10%
WASH Tutorial 15%
Term Project
First Deliverable (not graded)
Second Deliverable 10%
Final Project 35%
Final Presentation 10%

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

assignment Written Assignments
notes Lecture Notes
group_work Projects