Mar 8th 2017

Tech-Treated Clean Water Is Good Enough to Drink

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Water — we all know it’s essential. And yet, in underprivileged communities all over the world, gaining access to clean water can be a major challenge. Experts estimate that 663 million people, nearly one tenth of the world’s population, live without safe water. That’s why organizations are turning to new technologies to make safe water available for everyone.

Ease of Access

A woman draws water from a well in Mchinji, Malawi (Stephen Morrison/AusAID)

“Dirty water is responsible for more deaths in the world than all forms of violence, including war,” says Scott Harrison, the founder of the nonprofit charity: water that has funded more than 21,000 projects to bring safe, convenient water to millions of people all over the world. Harrison, along with dozens of other innovators, see a role for technology in their mission. So do companies with a technology focus who understand clean water connects to global security as well as humanitarian missions. Northrop Grumman’s environmental sustainability programs have focused their efforts to address the global challenges surrounding clean water availability. The company sponsors organizations such as Water Wells for Africa, Water for People, and Engineers Without Borders which enable projects such as the drilling of new water wells in Malawi and development of water distribution and filtration systems in Nicaragua.

In some communities, it’s a struggle to simply get water to drink; on average, women and girls in developing countries walk 3.5 miles per day to get their water. It has long been a priority for aid organizations to install wells and pumps in towns so that residents only have to walk to the center of town to get water for their families instead of to rivers that are miles away. Some, such as charity: water, are giving those wells a techy upgrade by equipping them with sensors so that people all around the world can see if water is flowing and alert technicians if they stop working.

In other places, however, wells simply aren’t possible. So inventors have created new ways to bring the water to people. Some are using mesh to harvest water from fog. Though the technology to do this is already in use in more than a dozen countries, researchers from MIT are developing a more efficient material. Other innovations, such as Warka Water, are more elaborate installations that combine different water-harvesting techniques like collecting rainwater, dew and fog to provide communities with the water they need.

Filtering Techniques on the Rise

But gaining access to water is only half the battle; if water is not properly treated, people can ingest bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause life-threatening illnesses. So scientists have created different techniques for purifying water to make it safe to drink. Some involve filters that trap microbes and chemical contaminants. One, called LifeStraw, contains a carbon-based filter that cleans water as it moves through a straw. Similar filters, such as Liquidity and Lifesaver, contain high-tech materials to purify water quickly and effectively. Though these filters are effective and don’t require any power to operate, they often cost a bit more up front and eventually need to be replaced. Some are also not designed to be used in large volumes, as would be needed for things like cooking.

Other researchers are working on devices that can clean water with ultraviolet light. Researchers from Stanford University created a solar panel about the size of a piece of gum that cleans water with UV light, though it hasn’t yet been tested in real-world settings. And another lunchbox-sized device called Ellie disinfects using LED lights. Though they are currently marketing Ellie to clean baby bottles on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, its creators hope to use Ellie to clean water in the places that need it most as they grow their company over the next few years. These technologies are less developed than filters and may require electricity, but they disinfect quickly and could make a big difference to people living without clean water if and when they are mass produced.

Each of these innovations might seem like only a small step towards solving the crisis of clean water. But they can make all the difference to people who benefit from such innovations. And to hear philanthropists tell it, it’s not such a far-fetched goal. According to a charity: water blog post: “We can solve the water crisis in our lifetime. We know how! But we can’t do it alone.”

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