Around the world, at least 1 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates the number could be as high as 4 billion—more than half the people on the planet.
The consequences are tragic. Each year, polluted drinking water sickens and kills between 1 million and 2 million children due to water-borne diseases that lead to diarrhea—which leaves them severely dehydrated, weak, malnourished, and susceptible to various illnesses and infections.
Curt and Cathy Bradner weren’t the first people to provide safe drinking water in developing countries. Their organization Thirst-Aid (www.thirst-aid.org) isn’t a large nonprofit, and doesn’t have movie star celebrities collecting donations. But they may have figured out the best way to provide safe drinking water in developing countries by “thinking out of the bottle.”
Cathy and Curt were college sweethearts, and married shortly after. Curt was a mechanical engineer who promoted applicable technology before it was cool, creating usable “somethings” out of available resources that others often found useless. Cathy’s business background helped their company, A-1 Tool, grow. They sold the successful enterprise in 1998, and began their dream trip of bicycling around the world. By the time they got to Thailand, they decided to stop for a month to help refugee children in an orphanage. They stayed for 5 years.
Now in their mid-fifties, the Bradners have dedicated the past 12 years to helping communities generate clean drinking water for themselves, while helping small businesses and educating people about proper sanitation and hygiene. Thanks to their efforts, children’s lives are being saved. They have worked in Thailand, Ghana,—and since 2006 primarily in Myanmar (formerly Burma), one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income of only $130 per year. This year, they’ll begin working in Kenya and Uganda.
I met them recently when they were back in the U.S. visiting family and friends, and seeking donations for their shoe-string funded but highly effective nonprofit.
Curt explained the need for clean water in Myanmar. Myanmar is a water-rich country with 15,000,000 people using surface sources (ponds, lakes and rivers) for their water needs. “Currently an estimated 2,000 children die from water related illnesses in Myanmar each month. That’s an overwhelming figure – hard to wrap your head around, so when I talk to prospective funders I ask them simply to picture a mother, usually Thin Nwe Soe. I ask them to picture Thin Nwe Soe in her house, a nice grass hut in the middle of a green rice paddy. Thin Nwe Soe has two children, Law Eh Paw – which means Lovely Flower and Heh Eh, which means Come Love. Law Eh Paw is 6 months old and of course still breast feeding; Heh Eh is 2½ years old and sick. He’s had severe diarrhea since last night and will be dead in another 12 hours. Thin Nwe Soe won’t be able to do anything about it because she lacks some basic education and simple resources. This picture repeats itself every 15 seconds in developing countries around the world.”
With the water filter product that Thirst-Aid introduced to Myanmar a child can have safe drinking water for about 1 dollar a year. Five dollars provides a child clean water for its first 5 years, a very critical time in its development, and when it is most susceptible to dying from contaminated drinking water.
In many developing countries, it is the job of women and sometimes children to find and carry water for the family. This can take hours of walking to reach a flowing stream or lake, only to return with buckets of water that are often brackish and polluted. In some places, entrepreneurs haul dirty water and sell it for a dollar or more a quart (or liter), which is a lot of money for an impoverished family.
Thirst-Aid Uses Simple Technology to Save Lives
There are two main ways to provide a poor community safe drinking water—wells and ceramic water filters. Many large nonprofits and international agencies take the macro approach and collect donations to drill a well. It can provide clean water for a whole village, and some irrigation water for crops. But wells also need continual care and upkeep and the water is often contaminated from sources on the way to home due to improper handling and storage. Furthermore if they become contaminated, the whole village loses its water supply. (See the sidebar for information on leading groups that are building wells.)
This approach works well when there is no surface water nearby to drink, even if could be treated. But where surface water is abundant, such as in Myanmar, another approach offers substantial benefits.
Thirst-Aid takes the micro approach by encouraging people to be responsible for the safety of their water. They introduced the manufacture of low-cost, point-of-use ceramic water filters, or CWFs. They look much like your typical clay flower pot but the clay must be specially mixed to create a porous structure after firing that will strain out bacteria and protozoa while letting the water slowly seep out the bottom into a sterile plastic container, like a 5-gallon bucket. If carefully handled and cleaned, a CWF can last 3-7 years.
Each CWF filtering pot may cost only $5, and the whole unit is less than $15. It can filter 1.5 to 4 liters an hour when kept full. Curt notes that the 10-liter pots he designed can provide a family with 30 liters (8 gallons) of “pure, healthy, potable water” each day.
To read the rest of the article, go to http://www.livinggreenmag.com/august_2011/sustainability.html