Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hi-Tech Teabags to Filter Water

Every now and then we come across some team or another trying to design clean water solutions for the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to clean drinking water. We have heard about the LifeStraw, now South African scientists are developing carbon fiber teabags that can filter water. We commend such out-of-the-box ideas. We need more of them, especially since one in three persons on this planet live in a situation where they cannot get clean water.

When working on a potential global solution to address safe water, there are a few points we need to consider:

Price Point. The cost of the solution needs to match the ability of the customers. LifeStraw is priced too high, may work in disaster conditions when there is aid flowing through and these units are heavily subsidized or distributed free; but not for regular use. Also, care should be taken so that when the solution is employed for regular use, the item is not given away for free. When we pay for an item, we place a value on it and appreciate it. Price of the solution therefore should be right - affordable while creating a sense of value.

Reuse. Disposable items are not favored by the masses. Where poverty reigns, people become expert recyclers. When they get a new dress, they save it till the old ones are worn out. Then they take out the new dress on a special occasion. Once the new dress has lost it's luster, they will make bed sheets out of it. When that's worn out, they will use it as towels. Then they will reuse the large towels as small hand towels. When those wear out, they may stitch them up to use as rags. When the rags wear out, they may use them as pulp for something else. That is how poverty works. We may not like it or feel sorry for such methods, but it is the reality. Hence, as designers we need to be cognizant of this need for reuse and design equipment such that there is residual uses after the primary function has been met.

Education. When we design single use items, such as filters, we often forget to understand the limitations of the end users to comprehend the useful life of such items. Education is very important. We need to explain not only the purpose of the filter (e.g. how it cleans the water and saves lives), we will have to educate the end users on how to (and how not to) use the filter, when the filter is no longer working (end of useful life), how to regenerate, etc. Even in the US with 100% literacy, we have found many water systems being operated way under capacity and without understanding of the fundamentals thereby causing much harm to the environment. Education and training is of utmost importance, may be even more than the solution itself.

Community Solutions. In most poor countries where water scarcity is severe, the most sustainable solution is a community solution instead of individual solutions. Communities in these areas share similar financial, familial, political, and social virtues and very rarely will you find an individualistic trait. Individualism is prominent in more affluent societies where competition is severe for luxuries of life. In societies where people are focused on basic survival issues, community solutions work more effectively and should be encouraged. Focus should be on simple indigenous solutions that are developed, designed, and built locally by the people. The people can then take ownership of the project, feel proud of their creation, and take care of it.

PROTEUS Consulting is very dedicated to help create a world where everyone has access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. We work with various researchers around the world who are working to address this goal. We also work with NGOs such as Water For People who is active in implementing such solutions. If you are interested to help out or learn more about our efforts, please contact us.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Protean Vision: Making the Food-Energy-Water Nexus a Reality

Yesterday USEPA announced that $9.8 million will be provided in grants to 38 states, territories and tribes to help protect the health of swimmers at America’s beaches. The agency also launched an improved website, BEACON 2.0 for beach advisories and closings, which will allow the public to easily access  current water quality and pollution testing information for more than 6,000 U.S. beaches.

This is good news indeed. Our beaches will get cleaner, the public more aware, and hopefully as a result we will all enjoy a better quality of life. There are many who will say that $10 million is not enough to clean all the beaches in 38 states, and that is probably true.

We at Proteus believe that this effort, while commendable, is a very little part of the whole solution. The question here is why do we have beach closures? Where is the pollution coming from? There are two kinds of sources - point sources and nonpoint sources. We have some laws that try to protect these sources and probably does a good enough job at it. But EPA here is working on an 'end of the pipe' solution for the whole issue, and hence is not always successful is solving the complex problem.

And a complex problem it is. The problem is a web or interrelated issues - food, water, and energy. We can only go so far by addressing the issues within the silos of food, water, and energy. It is time now to start looking at all the relationships and devising enterprising inter-related solutions. Food production involves a lot of water, preferably clean water. With the erratic weather patterns and reduced flows in the rivers and streams, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve out sufficient irrigation water to grow food. Cleaning the water for consumption and also the wastewater for reintroduction into the rivers and streams are also becoming more and more expensive due to ever increasing energy prices. Energy production on the other hand requires a lot of water for cooling towers and process. Even if we want to invest in "green" biofuels, we still need water to develop them which is becoming scarce. The way the world works right now is that the three industries (agriculture, water, and energy) and their governing agencies and laws act in their silos. Each group sets goals, creates plans, and embarks on those plans without consulting the other groups. In governments around the world, there is no integration of policies!

Source: WEF 2011

As the world hits the seven billion mark, we enter a new era of resource restrictions. Scarcity of food, water, and energy will become more severe and conflicts will arise, there is no doubt about it. The silver lining in this is that we will become more resourceful (pun intended) to devise solutions for this resource strapped planet. At Proteus, we believe that we can achieve this by four ways, and equal strides are needed in each of these paths:

  • Businesses need to become resource efficient, preferably with a net-zero environmental footprint.
  • Governments will need to develop integrated policies that encompass food-water-energy nexus.
  • NGOs and other non-profits will need to start taking very active role in developing solutions, sometimes leading the thought process.
  • Citizens of the world will need to make consumption decisions with sustainability in mind.
Businesses need to become resource efficient, preferably with a net-zero environmental footprint. It makes business sense to focus on resource efficiency because as the resources get depleted, the competitive market will leave no choice for businesses. The risks of resource depletion and uncertainty will become so high that conservation and efficiency will dominate decisions to ensure economic success. Sustainability focus is no longer a public relations campaign, it's a matter of survival. We see some companies already embracing this mantra and through our incubation services, Proteus now helps young start-up companies to make the right start. We also counsel established companies and municipalities to review their current strategies and procedures and reorient to focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

Governments around the world will need to develop integrated policies that encompass food-water-energy nexus. Governments and it's agencies including municipalities need to focus on creating holistic policies that address the issues and challenges in all the three industry sectors. Care should be taken so that policies of one sector do not erode the policies of the other. Proteus has the foresight and talent to  help build that consensus and facilitate the creation of these integrated policies. Out specific talent lies int he fact that we are Open and Willing to new ideas, knowledge, and perspectives. We see the elephant for what it is and hence can direct the teams to move towards solutions that are fit-for-purpose.

NGOs and other non-profits will need to start taking very active role in developing solutions, sometimes leading the thought process. We see a great need for NGOs and other non-profits to work as involved stakeholders in developing solutions, both in developing and developed countries. We commend and support organizations like Water For People that focus on implementing projects only when the entire local community of entrepreneurs, civil society, and governments are involved and engaged. We believe that economic, social and environmentally sustainable projects can only happen when we can establish creative, collaborative solutions that allow people to build, take ownership, and maintain their own systems. This empowering of everyone transforms people’s lives by improving health and economic productivity. During our daily business here at Proteus, we engage with NGOs and non-profits by mutual education, discussion, and exchange of ideas.

Citizens of the world will need to make consumption decisions with sustainability in mind. This is indeed a tall order to ask every global citizen to understand the state of the planet and it's frailty and then make choices that will turn the tide from personal greed towards a sense of cohabitation. This is very difficult. But it is not impossible. At Proteus, we strive to lead by example and help spread the 'story' by education and collaboration. We also commend agencies that have started a mass movement to determine how we can produce and consume more sustainably.

PROTEUS Consulting is 15 months old. We have had a great journey and look forward to a fantastic year ahead. We appreciate the support of all our mentors and well-wishers, we could not have done it without you. Thank you!