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.

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