The answer to water issues isn’t always digging a well or building a toilet. Here are eight cost-effective innovations that could give more people clean water and better sanitation.
WARKA WATER TOWER
Every day in Ethiopia, women and children walk miles to collect water from shallow ponds, most of them contaminated with human and animal waste, parasites, and bacteria. When architect Arturo Vittori, visiting from Italy, saw this firsthand, he vowed to find an easy and affordable way to deliver potable water.
Vittori looked to biomimicry, a discipline that analyzes how wildlife thrives in nature, and that adapts those concepts to solve human problems. The Namib Desert beetle particularly intrigued him: It survives by drawing water from the air. When early-morning fog forms, the beetle tilts its head down and raises its back end toward the sky. The fog condenses on the beetle’s shell, and the water trickles down into its mouth. Vittori emulated the beetle’s strategy – relying on gravity and weather – to create the Warka Water tower, which harvests water from the air.
The structure is elegant and easy to build, relying largely on environmentally sustainable and biodegradable materials, many of which can be sourced locally. The outer shell, made from natural fiber materials like bamboo, provides structural support and holds up hanging mesh that’s coated to collect condensation, which drips into a container at the base of the tower. It can gather up to 100 liters of drinking water in a day and costs about $1,000.
Vittori’s latest prototype, Warka Water 3.0, is 33 feet tall and weighs 132 pounds. Six people can build one in four days. He plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign within the next few months, with the goal of building a tower in Ethiopia by the end of 2015.
The tower’s name comes from the social significance of the Warka tree, or the wild fig tree, often used as shelter for public gatherings in Ethiopia. That reflects the ultimate goal of the project, which seeks more than a pragmatic solution to water shortages. “We are focused on creating a beautiful structure,” Vittori says, “that can blend into the natural and cultural environments of the rural Ethiopian communities.”
About four hours after Martin Brody’s Rotary club appointed him to lead its water projects, he turned on his TV and watched in amazement as children drank water – safely – from filthy puddles using a simple tube. The device, called LifeStraw, filters out nearly all harmful bacteria and protozoa. It requires neither heat nor electricity. Vestergaard, a company that develops humanitarian products such as mosquito nets, created LifeStraw while trying to eliminate guinea worm from water.
The next morning, Brody called Vestergaard. “I don’t know how the words came out of my mouth, but I said, ‘We’ll take 10,000.’ I got their attention,” says Brody, a member of the Rotary Club of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Since that day seven years ago, he’s helped collect more than $600,000 to provide tubes to developing areas.
The LifeStraw has some drawbacks: It lasts only one year and, due to its small size, can easily be lost or stolen. When Vestergaard developed the LifeStraw Community model two years ago, however, the club soon shifted its focus and stopped distributing the personal version. LifeStraw Community can store up to 25 liters of filtered water, lasts three to five years (filtering about 100,000 liters), and serves about 70 people.
When users pour water into the top of a LifeStraw Community device, a filter removes particles larger than 80 microns (a micron is one-millionth of a meter). Next, an ultrafiltration hollow-fiber membrane cartridge blocks all particles and microbes larger than 20 nanometers, and then purified water is ready to be dispensed from the container’s four taps. The club’s project has provided LifeStraw Community units for about 150 schools in Haiti and a dozen in Kenya.
SUPERCRITICAL WATER OXIDATION
When does a flame appear in water? That might sound like a koan, or a wizarding question for Harry Potter. But there’s a scientific answer: When water is heated above 705 degrees Fahrenheit while under extreme pressure (exceeding 3,200 pounds per square inch), it becomes a supercritical fluid. That means it’s less dense than liquid water but denser than steam. The high temperature and pressure create a combustion reaction. (Most kitchen pressure cookers heat only to about 250 degrees.) And when that combustion reaction occurs, a flame appears in the water.
This basic process, called supercritical water oxidation, has helped clean up all manner of messes, including chemical weapons, for decades. Now researchers at Duke University and the University of Missouri have collaborated (with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) to use supercritical water oxidation to create clean water from human waste.
The system, which is still in prototype stage, fits in a 20-foot shipping container. A village of 1,200 people should be able to empty their latrines into the system and get odor-free water for a variety of uses, such as irrigation and laundry.
Researchers have used synthetic poop to test it in a lab setting. (They adapted a recipe developed by NASA, which includes miso paste, baker’s yeast, and oil.) “As soon as we can, we’ll move things into the field and experiment with real waste,” says Marc Deshusses, director of Duke’s energy engineering program. By the end of this year, he’ll install a prototype on the Duke campus for three months.
Deshusses has vowed to publicly drink a cup of water produced by the campus prototype, but he knows the stunt will not necessarily persuade other people to drink the water. “There’s a huge psychological barrier when you say, ‘Give us your poop, and we’ll give you drinking water.’”
“We don’t need an architect.” That’s what a woman living in a Mumbai housing project told Swedish architect Anders Wilhelmson. She and her neighbors could build their own homes, she said. What did they need? A safe way to dispose of their poop. Four months later, he had designed the Peepoo, a single-use, sanitary bag that fits over a small bucket. After peeing or pooping into the bag, the user ties the top. It’s odor-free for 24 hours, and a urea lining inactivates harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, within a month.
Peepoo also can help local people earn income. In four villages in a Kibera slum in Kenya, women sell empty Peepoos for about three Kenyan shillings (US$0.03) per bag. Customers receive a refund of one Kenyan shilling ($0.01) for each used bag returned to a Peepoo drop point, where the waste is later distributed as valuable fertilizer. The bags themselves are biodegradable and disintegrate within a year.
Wilhelmson’s nonprofit, Peepoople, began mass producing the bags in late 2013 and sent one million of them to the Philippines after the devastating typhoon in November of that year.
Every day, about 13,000 schoolchildren use the Peepoo, with some unintended but life-changing consequences. “I learned that most children avoid shared latrines because they are overflowing and dirty,” says Camilla Wirseen, co-founder of Peepoople Kenya. “And when the children go to defecate in the open, this puts them at risk for rape. It is difficult to grasp the true value of having a private toilet.”
In Guatemala, residents have found a way to pump water without electricity: the bicimaquina, or bicycle machine. At the nonprofit Maya Pedal in San Andrés Itzapa, volunteers build bicimaquinas out of recycled bicycle parts and wood or cement. Various models also can grind 3 pounds of grain in a minute and perform many other tasks, such as shelling macademia nuts, blending ingredients for smoothies or soap, and producing concrete for roof tiles.
Before a bicimaquina was installed in Xiquin Juyu in 2005, the only source of water was a river, located miles away. With the machine’s pedal power, residents can pump water from a nearby 100-foot well at 5 to 10 gallons a minute. In another community, people wanted to pump water in from a distant area, but the necessary electrical system cost more than $5,100, says Mario Enrique Juárez, director of Maya Pedal. They chose the bicimaquina instead, a cheaper and more durable solution. “After 13 years of use, our bike pumps are still getting water,” he adds.
ENVIROFIT CLEAN COOKSTOVE
In many countries, people risk their lives just to boil drinking water. Open-flame cooking fires cause up to 4.3 million deaths each year from smoke inhalation (more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined), and are a leading cause of severe injury and death from burns among women and children.
“It’s a pervasive problem that’s been largely ignored,” says George Basch, founder and “chief cook” for the nonprofit Himalayan Stove Project, based in Taos, N.M. Basch, who’s also a member of the Rotary Club of Taos-Milagro, has spent the past four years working to eliminate the danger in the Himalayas, with help from Envirofit, based in Fort Collins, Colo.
Envirofit was founded in 2003 by Colorado State University engineers who designed an alternative to an open flame: a stove that dramatically reduced emissions of smoke and harmful gasses, as well as the amount of fuel needed. Those fuel costs add up quickly – and they’re not just monetary. People who must collect wood for fuel (usually women and children) sometimes have to forage in dangerous conflict zones. For children, gathering fuel also means less time in school.
Traditional cookstoves, which contain ceramic or clay combustion chambers, are heavy and fragile. The Envirofit engineers designed a lighter combustion chamber that would last at least five years. In the Himalayas, this is a huge benefit when transporting the stoves through remote villages. “These are carried in on somebody’s back,” sometimes for several days, Basch says.
To withstand temperatures that reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and the corrosive compounds released when biomass burns, the chamber is made from a special alloy created with help from the Oak Ridge National Research Laboratory in Tennessee. The Envirofit cookstove also is efficient, reducing the amount of fuel required by about 60 percent.
About seven years ago, Envirofit started with a small pilot project in India. Since then, it has sold more than one million stoves across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Envirofit now offers a half-dozen clean stoves that can burn wood, dung, and other biomass.
By collaborating with other Rotary clubs (Basch’s club is the lead partner) and an array of sponsors, the Himalayan Stove Project has delivered 3,000 stoves. That includes the installation of 90 Envirofit stoves in February in the village of Gamcha, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, by members of the Rotary Club of Tripureswor. Funding for that effort came from the Himalayan Stove Project, the Taos-Milagro club, and the Madison (Wis.) Rotary Foundation.
In many parts of the world, pit latrines are cleaned with shovels. That’s as unpleasant as it sounds, so often the pits are abandoned after they overflow. But there’s a better option: the Gulper. Attached to a hand pump, the PVC-and-stainless-steel pipe will reach 1.5 to 3 meters down to empty a latrine pit.
The nonprofit Water for People developed the Gulper as a way to clean the toilets, but also to generate income in Malawi and Uganda. One man who created a sludge-removal service using the Gulper says that to him, poop is “the color of gold.” Since 2010, “gulping” has provided a steady source of income for his family. “He revealed that initially, his wife didn’t support him because of the ‘disgusting’ nature of the business,” says Sherina Munyana, communications manager at Water for People. “But now, whenever she sees him taking the [collection] drums out, she smiles because she knows he will be returning with bundles of cash.”
AFFORDABLE SANITARY PADS
In 2009, entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham received a notable honor: an innovation award, presented by the president of India, for a machine that produces affordable sanitary pads. He created the process after he learned that his wife could not afford pads during her menstrual period and had to use unsanitary cloths.
Along the way, he endured enormous personal sacrifices. The problem he tackled was – and still is – taboo throughout much of the world. During the more than four years he spent developing the manufacturing method, Muruganantham’s wife became ashamed of his project and left him. His mother didn’t hide her disapproval either. Neighbors forced Muruganantham to leave his village, claiming he was possessed by evil spirits.
Yet he remained undaunted and went on to help revolutionize the process of making safe sanitary pads. On average, pads produced with his machine sell for 2 rupees each. Muruganantham created two versions of the menstrual pad device: The smaller model, a manual machine, can make 500 pads a day, and the larger model, a pneumatic press, can produce 1,500 pads a day. Muruganantham has 1,370 machines in 1,340 villages, and by the end of 2015, he hopes to have machines in 24 countries.
“We can see the empowerment of women in real time, when we start this project in a village,” he says. “And when I see this transformation, I feel proud. Girls can go to school and not worry about being absent from class. Women don’t lose their dignity.” — Sandra Swanson