Portable drinking water is one of the most important resources in the world, yet almost 1 billion people have no access to it. If more money were put into innovation, writes Erin Williamson, we could quickly change that state of affairs.

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Among the most important resources in the world, in terms of both human survival and global conflict, is potable drinking water. Access to clean drinking water is tangled up in nearly every health crisis around the world, and is central to many political struggles; often access to clean water is restricted as a tool of war. Allocation of water for human consumption has been controlled by the state of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, fighting between factions in Sudan was partially triggered by clashes over control of the Jonglei Canal, and inadequate sanitation resulting in water contamination is a rampant problem in refugee camps around the world.

Furthermore, 783 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and are susceptible to water-borne diseases like diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, and hepatitis A, which are caused by drinking dirty water.

Women transporting water  (image: waterdotorg / Flickr)

Women transporting water  (image: waterdotorg / Flickr)

As the world population continues to grow, water scarcity will continue to incite conflict and water-borne illnesses will continue to cost lives. Last year, the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people worldwide without access to clean drinking water was accomplished ahead of schedule, bringing potable water to over 2 billion people through expanded pipeline networks, wells, constructing latrines, and educating at-risk populations about sanitation risks. Of the nearly 1 billion people who still do not have drinking water, most of them live in rural, low density population areas, where large-scale projects are difficult to implement. So what can be done to reach these underserved populations?

Author’s water bottle

Author’s water bottle

I got to thinking about a portable solution for potable water when I was traveling in California last week. I knew my agenda was full of outdoor activities like hiking, whale watching, and jogging, so I brought my water bottle with a filter built into the cap. I wasn’t sure whether there would be water fountains available, or if I’d have to drink from sinks or other unsavory (to the Western taste buds) water sources, and my bottle enables me to put water (already potable water, I should clarify) into the bottle, and squeeze it through the built-in filter for consumption. I found that bringing that bottle and always having it with me encouraged me to drink more water not just during the hiking trip, but during the whole trip. This particular bottle uses a carbon filter to essentially make the water taste better by removing particulates like zinc, mercury, copper, and cadmium. Of course those are not the deadly bacteria and viruses threatening lives in non-potable water, but could the concept of a personal water purifier improve the lives of those still living without access to clean drinking water?

There are many problems with purifying water in developing countries. Often, these locations do not have electricity to power a purifying machine, like the Slingshot, and the costs and durability of these devices can be prohibitive and impractical for use. The closest alternative to a personal portable water purifier that seems to be available today is the LifeStraw, which actually does filter out bacteria and viruses that cause water-borne illnesses, unlike my bottle. Estimates put its manufacturing cost at around $3.50, and uses a proprietary filtering compound. It works just like a straw; someone can place the end into even a stagnant pond and suck the water through the filter. It uses nothing more than human-powered suction.

This device has been distributed to people in Haiti, Pakistan, and Ghana, at the expense of Vestergaard Frandsen, the company that produces LifeStraws, as well as NGOs like World Serve. However, use of such a straw does require proximity to water: a user cannot transport water sources with them, which is problematic in arid regions like sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.

(image: petertheasianguy / Flickr)

(image: petertheasianguy / Flickr)

Similarly, ceramic water filters have attacked the problem on a more localized level in households in Cambodia, Guatemala, South Africa, and Nepal. These are larger devices, shaped like flower pots, and are designed for household, rather than individual use. According to one producer of these filters, each should last 2-5 years, and costs between $10-12 to produce locally by those who benefit from its use. These are less portable, and meant to filter larger quantities of water for household cooking, consuming, and sanitation, but do not provide the portability of the LifeStraws, which can be worn around the neck. However, they do aim to alleviate the problem that mostly women and girls face of transporting large quantities of clean water from miles away back to their villages.

Given the scope and high profile of the clean water shortage in rural areas, there is no doubt that we need continued innovation to bring clean water to people, wherever they are. An innovation like my water bottle, but using filters designed to clean non-potable water of bacteria and viruses could liberate people from their homes but also allow them to transport quantities of water with them. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much support for social entrepreneurs for manufacturing relatively expensive per-unit items. Dean Kamen’s Slingshot has only recently been scheduled for a pilot launch in Mexico, Paraguay, and South Africa, despite development occurring in 2000. Most funding for distribution of such water filters come from the companies that produce them, or NGOs. While improved access to clean water can increase a country’s GDP up to 7%, national governments have been hesitant to pick up the tab. Perhaps new innovation that ticks the right boxes will motivate investors and continue to eliminate the devastating results of drinking dirty water.

Further reading: 

How Coca Cola and Dean Kamen are Working To Solve the Water Crises

Learning to Value Clean Water

Water For Development: Focus on Africa

The State of Water in Ethiopia – A Bright Outlook