Disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens lurk in much of India’s water supply. This is largely caused by the improper disposal of waste, including agricultural runoff.
Although access to drinking water has improved, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. In India, diarrhea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily—the same as if eight 200-person jumbo-jets crashed to the ground each day.
– water.org: “The Water & Sanitation Crisis in India”
India’s water crisis is caused by a combination of factors, including poor government planning, government corruption, and mismanagement of human and industrial waste.
India is certainly not alone in facing a water crisis. However, as the second most-populous nation on Earth, the magnitude of India’s water crisis eclipses that of most other countries.
Rural India in particular faces an additional burden: Water from their lakes and rivers is often pumped out to serve ever-growing urban populations. As water is pumped into the cities from outlying areas, rural communities find themselves bereft of an adequate water supply.
People in cities lack water also. As a 2012 article in The Guardian stated, “Only five percent of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 cities and towns, including New Delhi, the country’s capital city.” Moreover, in all of India, only two cities (Thiruvananthapuram and Kota) are supplied with water throughout the entire day. Of the remaining cities, some get water for only a few hours every day—and some cities only get water once every few days. Hyderabad, for instance, only gets water for two hours at a time, every other day. This rationing can have very serious health consequences. In 2009, two hundred people were hospitalized due to lack of water, and sixteen people died.
For those of us who simply turn a knob inside our homes and instantly have unrestricted access to litres of running water, it is very hard to imagine planning for bathing, drinking, cooking, and washing needs when water comes only once a day, or once every few days.
Sources Drained Dry
Even with water piped in from increasingly remote areas, there is not enough water to satisfy the growing demands of rapidly-expanding cities. And some of the water sources themselves, such as the river Cauvery, are starting to dry up.
Groundwater is also getting depleted. Private citizens are digging more wells, using out resources faster than the government can track them. Groundwater quality continues to decline due to contamination by untreated sewage.
In lieu of large-scale improvements to the water treatment infrastructure, how can India’s citizens have regular access to clean water?
Several solutions have been devised to address this vital issue.
Dispensing and Delivering Healthy Water
One solution involves dispensing purified water to the people who need it most. Companies such as Sarvajal, WaterHealth International, and SpringHealth bring clean water to Indians through water kiosks, water ATMs, and even water delivery to individual households.
The water kiosks and ATMs in particular are useful in areas with sporadic municipal water access, as they allow Indians ‘round-the-clock access to safe drinking water.
Water quality at the water kiosks and water ATMs is continuously monitored remotely. The companies who run the water distribution points will send technicians to service and maintenance their systems, as needed.
The Trickle of New Ideas
Another solution is to put the purification technology in the hands of the people who source water themselves. There are personal, household, and community-wide filtration and purification systems.
LifeStraw, an instant microbiological water filter, requires no electrical power or replacement parts. The user simply uses the filter as a straw, sucking the water through it. The suction pulls the water through the filter.
The filter removes practically all parasites, bacteria, and turbidity from the water. Using hollow fibre membrane technology, the filter inside of each LifeStraw traps virtually all pathogens. This type of filtration requires no purification chemicals, such as iodine or chlorine.
Each LifeStraw will purify at least one thousand litres of water. (There are larger versions of the personal LifeStraw which can be used for households and other applications.)
The WATERisLIFE organization distributes a very similar water-purifying filter straw. Rather than hollow fibre membrane technology, the WATERisLIFE straw uses a combination of membrane filters, iodine crystals, and a charcoal filter to produce clean water.
The WATERisLIFE straw has the capacity to filter two to three litres of water per day. Based on average use, the straw should last about a year. The user will know it is no longer working when the straw’s filter becomes clogged.
These straws are intended for temporary use, providing clean water for individuals until a larger-scale, community-wide solution can be developed and implemented.
Another revolutionary filtration system is the BioSand Water Filter, designed by Dr David Manz. Manz’ filter uses locally-available materials such as sand, cement, and pebbles to remove pathogens and dissolved solids (like iron, manganese, arsenic, and fluoride) from contaminated water. Both the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) endorse the BioSand filter.
Distilling Improvements in Water Purification
The Slingshot water purifier was created by Dean Kamen. (Kamen is best known to the world as the inventor of the Segway personal transportation device.) The Slingshot uses vapour compression distillation to change any liquid, even sludge, into potable water. This is an old and relatively simple technology, but Kamen’s Slingshot makes it practical and portable.
The Slingshot does require electricity to run, though. It’s only a kilowatt—roughly the amount used by an electric can opener, or a small household coffee maker. Still, the places in dire need of water purification are less likely to have electrical power.
Kamen may have come up with a solution for the power issue. He has modified the two-hundred-year-old Stirling engine, which runs on a heat and cold source, into a generator.
Kamen’s version of the Stirling engine could use any locally-available heat source, such as methane or decaying cow dung, to produce power. This would make it practical even in undeveloped agricultural areas, where there is no central supply of electricity.
While the power problems may be solved through the use of Kamen’s Stirling generator, the cost of the Slingshot may still be prohibitive for many villages needing water purification.
A New Chapter in the Water Sanitation Saga
A unique solution to the problem of personal and household water filtration is the Drinkable Book. Developed by Dr Theresa Dankovich, the pages of the Drinkable Book act as filters, reducing the bacteria count in contaminated water by 99.9%. (This is comparable to the purification level of tap water in many developed nations.)
The pages of the Drinkable Book are coated with silver nitrate nanoparticles. When the water passes through the specially-treated pages, E. coli, cholera, typhoid, and other dangerous diseases are killed.
Messages printed in food-grade ink on the filter-pages of the book help teach people about water sanitation and safe water practices. (One of the goals of Folia Water, the social business that manufactures the filter-pages, is to translate the educational material on the pages into different languages. The company also plans to include images that would make the message more accessible to people at different literacy levels.)
It only costs a few pennies to manufacture and treat the pages of the Drinkable Book, making it affordable for those living on less than 2 USD (about 137 INR) per day.
The Drinkable Book is lightweight and completely portable. A single person could easily carry it by hand, much like the traditional hardback book it resembles. Moreover, the Drinkable Book requires no electricity to use.
The process is simple:
- Tear a filter-page from the Drinkable Book.
- Slide the filter-page into the filter box (supplied with the Book).
- Pour contaminated water through the filter.
- Enjoy the clean water from the collection box.
Perhaps most astounding, each filter in the book can provide one person with clean water for up to thirty days. And each Drinkable Book can produce potable water for up to four years’ time.
Turning the Tide for Millions
In order to truly turn the tide in the long term, overall sanitation must be improved. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) was instituted to work toward this crucial goal.
But improving overall sanitation is a multi-faceted, multi-decade process. It involves changing attitudes and practices on an individual level. To this end, LEAF Society works tirelessly to educate children and communities about safe sanitation and good hygiene practices.
While this is important work, massive changes are still needed to the national water and sanitation infrastructure. And changes of the magnitude required will take years to complete.
In the meantime, inventions such as the Drinkable Book, the Life Straw, and the BioSand filter can literally mean the difference between life and death to those lacking safe water.
Coming up next week, we’ll look at new toilet technologies—and discover how the health of both people and the water supply can be improved through innovations in human waste management.
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.