While people in many developing countries have plenty of water, much of it isn’t safe enough to drink. What will it take to make their water supplies clean so we can stop spending scarce resources on mountains of plastic water bottles?
By HEATHER BOURBEAU
Like many of his middle-class neighbors in Mumbai, Bhakti Klein gets his water delivered to his home each week in a plastic bottle by the local grocery store. For 20 liters (just over 5 gallons), he pays 90 rupee, or $1.35—nearly a third of the average Indian’s daily income of $4.41. “We don’t have a 24-hour water supply in my neighborhood yet, let alone potable water,” says Klein, who is originally from the United States. “The entire water supply system would have to be improved before I would drink tap water.”
By 2013, China had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s biggest market for bottled water. And in 2015, the Chinese spent more than $26.5 billion on this basic earthly resource.
India is now the world’s third largest market for bottled water. According to Canadean, a global business research firm based in the United Kingdom, the amount India spent each year on bottled water nearly tripled from 2010 to 2015, growing from $6.275 billion to $16.7 billion. That represents 6 percent of the world’s current bottled water consumption, a figure that Canadean expects to grow to 10 percent by 2020.
As massive as those figures sound, they pale in comparison to China’s. From 2010-2015, according to Euromonitor International, a global market research firm, China’s annual consumption of bottled water rose from 19 billion liters to 37 billion. By 2013, China had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s biggest market for bottled water by volume; in 2015, Chinese consumers spent more than $26.5 billion on this basic earthly resource, and there is no sign of a slowing. Canadean predicts that China and India will consume about 45 billion liters more bottles of water in 2020 than they did in 2015.
Even though China and India do engage in some plastic recycling, we certainly don’t need more plastic in the world; more important, those who need bottled water most cannot afford it even in those two countries. Consider this, from a report by WaterAid: While the water bill in developed countries such as the U.S. can represent as little as 0.1 percent of a minimum wage earner’s income, for the poorest of the poor in a country like Papua New Guinea, that figure is close to 54 percent. In Kibera, a neighborhood in Nairobi dubbed Africa’s largest slum, most people live on less than a dollar a day. Yet the average price for a liter of drinkable water is $0.75.
Much of this waste and its costs—environmentally, medically, and financially—is unnecessary. In various spots of the globe, determined water scientists have been devising simple, low-tech methods of creating clean water supplies, at both the neighborhood and household levels, at extremely moderate costs. What would it take to get more communities to use them?
The World Heath Organization estimates that 500,000 people die every year from diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water. Meanwhile, the UN reports that a few basic water purification measures, such as the use of household disinfectants, would reduce diarrhea problems by a stunning 45 percent.
The phenomenal growth of the bottled water business—at least in developing countries—is largely due to a maddeningly fixable cause: problems with the local water supply.
In China, for example, the Ministry of Land and Resources noted in a 2015 report that 60 percent of 5,000 monitoring sites had groundwater that was polluted. Across the globe, the World Health Organization reports,1.8 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces. The consequences of drinking contaminated water are profound. It can transmit diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, which can lead to liver damage or kidney failure and affects almost 240 million people worldwide. The World Heath Organization estimates that 500,000 people die every year from diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water.
Now compare those sad numbers to this one: According to the United Nations Millennium Project’s Task Force on Water and Sanitation, a few basic improvements in drinking-water quality, such as the use of household disinfectants, would reduce diarrhea episodes by a stunning 45 percent.
Chlorine, liquid bleach, or Aquatabs have long remained some of the most effective ways to disinfect water and kill germs. Not surprisingly, 98 percent of U.S. water treatment facilities use some form of chlorine. Organizations such as Dispensers for Safe Water provide chlorine-dosing stations at water collection points in Kenya, Uganda and other countries.
Aquatabs claims to be the “world’s number one water purification tablets,” and are used by over 13 million daily users around the world. You may have taken them camping. Among its customers are international aid agencies and relief organizations, such as WaterAid and various governmental ministries of health.
“Chlorine is affordable even for the poorest of the poor ($0.25 per month) and widely available,” says Jeff Albert, vice-chair and co-founder of the Aquaya Institute, a non-profit research and consulting organization aimed at improving health in the developing world. “If I were a slum dweller in Dhaka or Addis Ababa,” he adds, “I would dose my jerry can of well water with dilute hypochlorite solution.”
Alas, despite its affordability and ubiquity, chlorine has its drawbacks. It does not remove sediment if the water is particularly turbid or murky. More important, chlorine doesn’t remove giardia and a few other pathogens that are notoriously resistant to chlorine.
Most of the water purification innovations seem to prove a fundamental axiom: the more effective solutions tend to be the simplest.
Since time immemorial, people have been heating clay to temperatures hovering around melting levels (called vitrification) in order to make “ceramic” vessels for food and water. Not until the mid-1800s, however, did we realize that clay heated just short of melting can become unusually fine-grained sieves. This makes a superb water filter, capable of removing both bacteria and protozoa.
Potters for Peace (PFP) has been working with organizations such as WaterAid to provide locally made ceramic pots. The PFP design was developed in 1981 by Dr. Fernando Mazariegos of the Central American Industrial Research Institute in Guatemala. It consists of clay in a flowerpot shape mixed with rice husks that are coated with colloidal silver, which removes bacteria and prevents bacterial growth in the filter. Based in Arizona, PFP has helped train and set up 50 ceramic filter factories in dozens of countries in Latin America and Africa. PFP made sure that its design is open source, meaning anyone or any organization can use it for free.
Equally important, these filters are often relatively affordable, even for poor families. A household can filter 20 liters of water a day at a cost of $0.034-0.14. The filter is built to last for three years.
While these filters are growing in popularity in lower-middle income countries, they are not as effective at removing viruses as some other options. And filters can break, requiring available spare parts. They also must be cleaned regularly.
This points to a sad reality to many ideas in the world of international development: Promising solutions often don’t correspond with local needs, because benefactors failed to address some basic, initial questions. Is the technology simple to use by people without much formal education? And is there a local supply chain of replacement parts, or alternatives, when things break or go wrong?
In the late 1980s, Dr. David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary was assessing the needs for safe water in South Africa and the Philippines. In response to what he saw, he developed a simple technology called a biosand filter. The device, which is a two-foot tall rectangular box with a spout, removes heavy metals, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa while also cutting down on odors and discoloration. The filters are typically made from concrete or plastic; a sand column covers the device with a natural biofilm. The pathogens are removed as the water travels through the sand.
In 2001, Manz co-founded the Canadian-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) to promote education and training in water purification using technologies such as the biosand filter. CAWST is essentially upholding the shibboleth about teaching a man to fish instead of giving him one. The organization trains community leaders how to build and maintain their own water purification methods; those leaders then train others to do the same. In the Dominican Republic and Cambodia, use of biosand filters reduced diarrheal disease occurrence by 47 percent, according to studies by the University of Nevada and the University of North Carolina.
“It is a good technology that really works and is based on sound environmental science,” says Dr. Ashok Gagdil, professor of Safe Water and Sanitation in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. (Gagdil is also an inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work with water in developing countries.) Concrete biosand filters can cost as little as $12, while plastic ones can run about $75.
In Zambia, CAWST’s outreach and biosand filters did a world of good for Gladys Chipalabela and her family. “I attended a CAWST training about water and how to keep it safe and the risks of taking untreated water from unprotected sources,” explains Gladys. After being given a biosand filter and taught how to maintain it, she became a quick convert, helping train others in her neighborhood.
Now she works with a CAWST partner, Seeds of Hope International Partnership, conducting community and NGO trainings and working with “community champions” to train them to make filters for people who, once they learn the risks with contaminated water, want one. The filters are made with local river sand, gravel, and cement. “I have helped make my neighborhood shift to safe water and improved hygiene, talking with neighbors one-on-one,” says Chipalabela with pride. “And now the community’s issues with diarrhea are history.”
“Based on all we are seeing, there is not a silver bullet for household water treatment,” says Sam Gil English, CAWST’s International Technical Advisor. “The same technology doesn’t work the same for everyone.” Yet they seem to prove an axiom: the more effective solutions tend to be the simplest.
The ideal solution, of course, is to build effective water treatment facilities, with sturdy pipes that can deliver cleansed water to people’s homes. Many countries cannot afford such projects, however, particularly in rural areas. So a lot of innovators are looking at a kind of midway solution: technologies that treat water at the point of collection (or POC). These collection points include hand pumps, public taps, and sometimes bodega-like water kiosks. The beauty of such interventions is that they require little to no change in the end user’s behavior and thus are more consistently effective. They are also considerably less expensive and capital intensive than centralized treatment facilities.
There are also movements around the world to create smaller, more affordable water purification plants. In India, WaterHealth International has brought safe, affordable drinking water to more than five million people every day, through decentralized purification centers that use a six-step filtration process. (First, the water is forced through a sand filter to clean it; then a charcoal filter to get rid of smells; then through an ultraviolet light disinfection unit to kill pathogens, and finally through a series of tighter and tighter micron filters, which have the convenience of being washable.) All of this costs about 6 rupees (or 10 cents) for a full 20 liters of water.
Once systems become this inexpensive, commercial enterprises begin to take notice. Discerning tourists can now find multi-step filtration systems used in high-end hotels around the world. There are multiple benefits to these systems, both obvious and hidden. First, they create a new mini industrial sector, and the new jobs as locals are employed to maintain, test, and distribute the new water supplies. Second, they reduce expenses, for both hotels and their customers. And third, they reduce pollution by eliminating hundreds if not thousands of those landfill-clogging plastic water bottles.
In the meantime, Dr. Gagdil, who grew up in Mumbai, is developing yet another water innovation: a large-scale carbon filtration system for the 200 million people who live in rural India and Bangladesh, to remove the arsenic that naturally occurs in their water. The cost: only $0.02 per liter of water—the same price that locals are already paying for water of lesser quality. If Gadgil succeeds, maybe India won’t be one the world’s fastest growing markets for bottled water much longer.