By Kate Reid
Arsenic exposure from contaminated well water affects up to 77 million people in Bangladesh. According to a 2010 study, 1 in 5 deaths in Bangladesh were the direct result of chronic Arsenic poisoning. The World Bank approximates that if the issue remains unchecked, by midcentury it could cost Bangladesh up to $88 billion in output lost to death and disease. Heralded as the “largest mass poisoning in history”, Bangladesh has an intense need for clean water solutions and mitigation of an issue in which all-previous attempts to solve have proved unsuccessful.
Why is Bangladesh’s water contaminated with arsenic? The country has naturally occurring inorganic arsenic levels in the groundwater in extremely high levels. In the 1970s, a misguided attempt by NGOs (who had no knowledge of the arsenic) to install millions of wells in rural Bangladesh to provide an alternative to disease-carrying surface water greatly exacerbated the crisis. High arsenic levels in groundwater, in a country where 90% of the population relies on groundwater from wells as their primary source of drinking water, is a recipe for disaster. While the consumption of inorganic arsenic happens predominantly through drinking groundwater, consuming foods washed with groundwater, or crops watered from this source also pose serious public health threats. Today, approximately 11 million wells serve a population of 160 people in Bangladesh.
Scotch Inspired Solutions for Clean Water
How can the arsenic crisis be combatted? Social Enterprise Purifaid thinks clean water in Bangladesh can be achieved with whiskey. Well, not whiskey exactly, but with a by-product from the distillation process – barley husks, to be specific. The concept began after Purifaid’s founder heard of a filter that uses barley husks leftover after whiskey production (invented by Scottish scientist Leigh Cassidy) to clean industrial wastewater in Europe. After confirming with Cassidy that the filter would also be effective in removing arsenic, the idea for Purifaid was born. As a Muslim country, Bangladesh does not have access to large supplies of whiskey byproduct, but Purifaid was able to design a filter based on the technology which uses coconut and rice husks (a cheap and local alternative) which in initial testing in the lab and in the field has worked, “brilliantly”.
The technology has the potential to provide real impact. Purifaids filters are inexpensive to manufacture relative to other solutions, need minimal upkeep (a simple cleaning every 3 to 4 months), and require no electricity or fuel. Installation is also simple, units attach to the end of a pre existing well pump. From a business standpoint, Purifaid’s aim is to connect with local sellers that will distribute the units after buying them at cost from Purifaid. Those businesses would then resell the units to villagers at a small cost, which would cover the fee for a dedicated person to perform maintenance on the unit as needed.
Notes on Filters and the Larger Issue of Water Contamination
Although arsenic contamination is the main threat to clean water in Bangladesh, water contamination in all forms is a huge issue globally. We may be sadly out of tune to this by virtue of living in the U.S., but the fact remains that this is an issue that needs serious long-term mitigation. Dirty water is the world’s biggest health risk. Every year, more people die from the consequences of unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war (unep.org).
“Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds. One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water.”- Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Filters, like the one designed by Purifaid, propose impactful solutions to a dirty water crisis, but they often fail. Why? Because they need upkeep to function properly (washing, cleaning, changing out) and in the third world poverty stricken villages where these are typically installed, this maintenance falls through the cracks, or those who sell the filters fall through on promises to maintain them. The challenge lies, therefore, (as with all social enterprises introducing new technology) in instituting products in a sustainable way. Successful, impactful, change is more than possible, but it’s going to take more than just a killer new clean water technology. Add education and awareness to the mix? Then you’ve got a killer recipe for success. It looks like Purifaid has all three elements in the works.
I’ll cheers some whiskey to that.