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.
While access to clean water supply has improved over the last decades, 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 what were the Millenium Development Goals.
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 SODIS (solar disinfection using water bottles) or ceramic filters made from clay.
The biosand filter however, is unique in many ways. It is cheap, durable and as an all-round single treatment process for turbid water, is probably one of the best there is. 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 biosand filter is easy to use and simple to maintain. And once bought, there are no recurring costs – 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. Biosand 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. An evaluation showed that 95% of the filters constructed 5 years previously were still in use. This is a success rate few other projects can achieve.
Since then, Medair and other agencies introduced the technology in several other countries. In one very encouraging result, in Afghanistan Tearfund used this approach to produce over 15,000 filters (half of which were sold for profit by local artisans).
It is therefore essential to think of ‘scaling up’. We had tried this with our plastic stackable filter idea, but the end cost would have been prohibitive. This brought us back to the idea of how to scale up using concrete filters. We don’t have the answer of how to do that, apart from people starting up other micro-enterprise projects locally. We know that concrete filters work well, that people like them, that they can easily build them. So 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.