Most of us take access to clean water for granted. But for nearly a billion people around the world, clean water is a commodity that’s hard to come by. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa where diarrheal disease is a major killer, access to clean water could save hundreds of thousands of lives. LifeStraw, a portable water filter that you sip from, was donated to nearly a million households in Kenya last April. The water filter is easy to use, cheap to make, and adds to the growing number of technologies developed by wealthy countries to improve the lives of the people living in impoverished ones.
With a filtering tube nine inches long, one inch in diameter, and weighing less than two ounces, even children can easily carry the LifeStraw wherever they go. Just as its name suggests, you simply lower the end into unfiltered water and drink through the mouthpiece at the top. Unfiltered water goes in one end, clean water out the other. It doesn’t need batteries and needs no extra parts. At least 99.9999% of all waterborne bacteria and 99.9% of waterborne parasites are eliminated. It doesn’t remove heavy metals, but it will reduce the murkiness of the water by removing particles larger than 0.2 micrometers. The simple filter is good enough to pass US EPA water filtration standards. And if used properly, a single LifeStraw can filter at least 1,000 liters (about 264 gallons), or about what a person drinks in a year. The water flow rate is high too, so you don’t have to struggle to quench your thirst.
Worldwide, 884 million people don’t have access to clean water and have no choice but to drink from local water sources contaminated with bacteria and parasites. Each year 1.8 million people die due to diarrheal disease, 200,000 from typhoid fever. Of those 884 million without clean water, 37 percent are living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only about ten percent of Kenyans have access to clean water. The other 90 percent will either boil unfiltered water or, because building fires requires firewood that must be bought, drink contaminated water. The nearly 900,000 LifeStraws donated means 90 percent of all Kenyan households will have easy access to clean water. Because they’re using less firewood it will also cut down on local deforestation. The filters are expected to last at least a decade.
It’s clear in the following video that LifeStraw is a godsend for the people of Kenya.
What kind of difference to the community should we expect to see? A 2009 study, published in the Journal of Water and Health, field-tested the LifeStraw to see exactly how the filter might impact health in the real world. A total of 647 participants were surveyed for diarrheal rates four months before and again four months after they were given LifeStraw filters. Before the filters, 16.8 percent of people reported getting sick over a two week period. After using the filters, that percentage dropped to 15.3 percent. One might expect a greater reduction than 1.5 percent, but access to clean drinking water is just one of a myriad of sanitation-related health concerns in poor countries. And if residents aren’t effectively washing their hands, for instance, they can still get sick. Aware of these issues, Vestergaard Frandsen, the Swiss-based maker of LifeStraw, takes a holistic approach. “It’s why LifeStraw is usually distributed with wrap-around education programs dealing with these issues,” media specialist for VF, Elisabeth Wilhelm, told Singularity Hub. “We have several studies in progress that we hope will more accurately capture the health impact instant access to clean water can provide.”
The study also revealed that people will eagerly use the LifeStraws when given the chance. Over 85 percent of participants said they always used the filters, an acceptance rate that Vestergaard Frandsen communications director Peter Cleary called “amazing” in an email.
Vestergaard Frandsen specializes in complex emergency response and disease control products. They’re footing the bill for the near million filters that will be donated – initially. Kenya plans to pay them back. How? With credit – carbon credit, that is.
Using the LifeStraws will not only cut down on waterborne diseases, but Kenya’s carbon footprint as well. Without filters people must boil their water to make it safe to drink. That entails using firewood and building a fire – and that firewood has to be bought. A lot of work goes into a round of clean drinking water for dinner. With the LifeStraw, they don’t need to buy firewood or build fires, or wait for the boiling water to cool down. Less fires means less carbon emissions. Kenya will be rewarded with carbon credit, with which they’ll reimburse Vestergaard Frandsen. This unique funding model where I give you a product and you pay me back with the benefits of that product is part of VF’s Carbon For Water program. It’s a pretty ingenious arrangement in my opinion. In six months the affect the the LifeStraws have on Kenya’s carbon emission will be assessed, and VF will begin collecting their carbon credits. When Kenya has finally paid off its due to the company, they can begin selling carbon credits to other parties.
As you might imagine, giving away nearly a million LifeStraws isn’t cheap. Cleary explains: “We invested $30 million in this program and believe it will pay for itself then become self-sustaining. We are committed to working with this community for ten years, but it’s possible we will be there for longer.” He also said the company hopes to replicate the model on a much larger scale in Indonesia. That work will begin in early 2013.
Part of those costs will be offset by paying customers who can afford the LifeStraw. In September, Vestergaard Frandsen made the filters commercially available in the US and Canada. So now you don't need to stock up on all those gallons of water before the next hurricane.
Unlike the people in Kenya, cold, clean water just isn’t good enough. Despite an endless, free supply of water, millions all over the world insist on drinking bottled water. Each year more than $100 billion is spent on bottled water. In 2008, Americans drank 9 billion gallons of the packaged common good. We drink more bottled water than we do beer or milk.
The Hipporoller and the Q Drum – water containers that you roll behind you instead of carry – would be a perfect addition to a LifeStraw-empowered village. Writing recently about the Q Drum, I described the inventor Piet Hendriske’s frustration that his container was still too costly for the many who need it. Maybe what he needs is to team up with a company like Vestergaard Frandsen who have found a solution with their Carbon For Water program.
Last month, an exhibition opened at the United Nations building in New York, entitled “Design With The Other 90%: Cities.” It showcases technologies – LifeStraw among them – aimed at improving living conditions for developing world communities. It’s strange to think that destitute villages and city slums are becoming hotbeds for innovation. But Vestergaard Frandsen is just one of many entities working to develop technologies that impoverished people not only need, but can afford.