Potable Water In Developing Countries: Are We Doing Enough?

lifestrawIt is a sad fact that in the year 2013 there are still approximately 800 million people without access to clean potable water. Almost 3.5 million of us will die each year from water related diseases, with 99% of fatalities happening in developing and third-world countries. Despite countless UK & US government campaigns and numerous national charity initiatives, the issues do not seem to be getting any better as one in nine people still lack access to improved water sources. Diarrhea caused by dirty drinking water is still responsible for around 4000 child fatalities every single day; claiming more young lives than AIDS and malaria combined.

So what exactly is happening to improve the standard of drinking water in areas such as Africa, Asia and South America? As a member of many charities such as WaterAid and UNICEF; I sometimes wonder where my monthly donations are going. The extent of the problem we have with potable water is, of course, humongous and is one that cannot be solved overnight; that much is obvious. With so many millions of people lacking access to clean water, it will take decades to make any significant transformation. But what exactly is happening with our charitable investments right now? By 2025, it is predicted that two thirds of our planet will be made up of water-stressed countries. So why are things set to get worse, rather than improve?

Investment in the Wrong Places

One major theory for the lack of improvement is that we place too much investment and time attempting to enhance the quality of water on the surface at the point of use, rather than attacking the problem directly at the source. Surface water is usually the only type of water available to people in under-developed countries and is often shared with nearby wildlife; making it extremely unsafe and full of deadly pathogens, bacteria and diseases. For these reasons, much effort has been placed into treating surface water so that it is safe to drink. Some of the inventions and innovations spurned to fulfil this notion are listed below:

  • LifeSaver Bottle – this clever little invention was introduced to the world in 2007 by Michael Pritchard. The bottle’s filter can purify between 4,000-6,000 litres of water and can filter objects larger than 15 nanometres. Mr Pritchard estimates that $20 billion worth of investment into his device will provide potable water for everyone on the planet.
  • Solarball – this device absorbs the sun’s heat to evaporate dirty water, leaving clean condensation to be collected for storage and drinking. Student and inventor Jonathan Liow claims that the Solarball is capable of producing 3 litres of drinkable water a day.
  • LifeStraw – perhaps one of the best water purifiers ever invented, this 25cm long tube filters the majority (99.9%) of microorganisms and can clean up to 700 litres of water. These are designed for point of use, allowing people to drink safely from a source of dirty water. The device uses no electricity or chemicals, instead relying on hollow fibres to filter water.
  • PUR® Purifier of Water – this packet of powder acts like a mini water treatment plant as it uses some of the same ingredients used in the water treatment industry. The coagulating agencies within the powder cause dirty solids to rapidly form as one and separate from the water, which is treated with the chlorine in the powder.

Now these inventions are undoubtedly clever and extremely reliable, but in terms of cost and distribution, they do not provide a good enough solution for the world’s potable water problems. To manufacture and supply any of these devices on a global scale will cost billions and to distribute them to every single person in need is just unfeasible. Filters, purifiers and water monitors all have fantastic uses, but purely for the point of use. As genius as these devices may be, they are clearly not the best answer to our potable water problems.

Well, there is Another Way

It’s time we moved our attention away from surface water at the point of use and start focusing more on obtaining clean, potable water from a reliable and wealthy source. Process treatment plants are completely out of the question, for now at least. They are far too expensive to build and maintain; especially in a developing country. Who knows, maybe in the future we may see some treatment plants start to crop up, but for now that is a distant dream. For the time being though, surely the most cost effective and easiest option is to start drilling water wells.

Sometimes, an idea so simple can seem unreliable and ineffective; but installing a well is about as simple and effective as you can get. It is hard to believe that the water our developing countries so desperately need is right underneath them. For a relatively minor cost, drilling 30-40 metres below ground can supply clean, pathogen-free water for a whole village. As long as the taps above the surface are cleaned and well-maintained, this is perhaps the cleanest, safest and most cost effective method available. Using the Earth’s natural crust as an organic filtration system is completely free of charge and allows us to access clean water directly from the source, rather than treating dirty water on the surface.

If we placed as much time, effort and investment into this as we have done with creating water-purification devices and other surface water treatment methods; then we would surely have a well in every African village by now. We can only hope that no more lives are wasted and we start treating the problem at source, sooner rather than later.

Ian Steele believes that filters, purifiers and water monitors are all extremely useful; but they are not the solution for developing countries and their needs for safe drinking water. He strongly believes that we should start to attack the problem at the source and not on the surface.