Trying something new
It’s always there, when we open the tap: cheap, clean and plentiful. We’ve got so much of it; we sprinkle our gardens, wash our cars and even flush our toilets with water that’s so pure you could sell it in a bottle. But what we take for granted is a dream for more than one billion people.
To them, water is a precious commodity, a basic human right they only dream about. It’s expensive, it’s scarce, hard to get. But most of all, it’s polluted, contaminated and unsafe to drink. In fact, dangerous to their health; a risk to their lives. But if there’s no alternative, you drink what you have. And that’s why diarrhoea kills more children than any other disease.
The cost of unsafe water is staggering. Immense human suffering, due to water borne disease that kills or cripples. Future potential forever gone, when school days are missed and children drop out. Economic damage, when productivity is lost, or poor families spend their last money to treat their sick. A vicious cycle of disease and poverty.
As one of the Millennium Development Goals, the world has pledged to reduce by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Is that really possible? Let’s face it: the picture is not very optimistic…
While access to clean water supply has improved over the last 20 years, progress has been neither as widespread nor as rapid as expected. The needs remain huge. Rural areas especially have been largely neglected. Successful community water projects can only cover limited areas, are comparatively expensive and time consuming to implement. Large scale programs often fail to live up to their promise as they struggle with sustainability. The developing world is littered with thousands of broken pumps and leaking pipes, due to lack of ownership or poor maintenance. Meanwhile, new problems are emerging: the arsenic crisis, industrial pollution, lowering water tables, a changing climate. We have to draw the conclusion that current levels of investment and rate of progress are hopelessly insufficient to achieve the millennium goal.
So what to do? One choice we have is to change direction and try a new and challenging approach. Household water treatment for instance, has a unique potential. It uses simple and affordable technologies which yet effectively treat dirty water where it is needed most: at family level. There are several promising technologies available, such as cheap chlorine solution or ceramic filters made from clay. The bio-sand filter however, is unique in many ways. It is cheap, durable and more effective than any other single treatment process. It allows people to purify the contaminated water they already use today, removing dirt, colour and smell. More importantly, disease causing viruses, cysts and bacteria are all eliminated. A bio-sand filter is easy to use and simple to maintain. Once bought, the filter will produce water for many, many years without extra cost.
That this is indeed possible – even in Africa – was proved by the NGO Medair some years ago with a small pilot project in Kenya. Bio sand filters made from concrete were sold to individual families. Initially subsidized, the price of the filters was slowly raised to include a small profit margin. Even now, demand for the filters continues to grow, as neighbouring villages discover the benefits and the technicians trained by Medair are making a good living, while their communities enjoy the benefits of clean drinking water. A recent evaluation showed that 95% of the filters constructed 5 years ago are still in use today; are still producing safe drinking water after many years. This is a success rate few other projects can achieve.
Since then, Medair introduced the technology in several other countries. Yet, the truth is that the success of these remarkable filters contributes little to the overall statistics. While they are very durable, concrete filters are heavy and break easily when moved. But more seriously, they are time consuming to construct. Thousands of projects would be needed to make an impact, and that is just not practical.
It is therefore essential to change the approach and think of ‘scaling up’. We want to embrace this vision, a dream we share with you: how to reach one million people with clean water in 5 years?
Technology provides part of the answer. Instead of concrete, we have developed a plastic filter. Strong and durable, easy to transport, simple to use. Above all, cheap; and mass producible in a developing country. Just fill with sand and a little gravel, and clean water is yours for years to come.
But a technology that works is not enough, unless it meets a demand among the population. And that is where social marketing comes in, a discipline that uses commercial marketing techniques to create a demand for products that are of social benefit. Combined, technology and methodology can make the vision become reality: clean water for one millions within the next decade.
We challenge you to buy into this vision, to make it your own. Not because there are solid guarantees for success: no innovative venture is entirely without risk. But because our vision is not just a daydream. The potential is all there, the risks are calculated, the odds are good: it’s possible if we give it our best. Join us in our vision!