A simple sand and activated charcoal filter ($10-15) can filter hundreds of gallons of water simply and cheaply. But will this solve India's (bottled) water issues?? Read on... (photosource: bethechangeinc)
I got the following question in my inbox recently. Its becoming a question of increasing frequency, and I want to address it properly. Here's the "question" the reader wrote:
Last year, after a research expedition [on the effect of plastics on the environment]...we were giving talks and meeting with legislators along the way [in North America].
At one of our talks, a woman who had just returned from a long trip in India approached me, and said, "this is all great what you guys are doing to educate people, BUT there are much larger problems with plastic bottles and waste overseas". She told me that due to poor sanitation, in some areas she'd been in, people had no choice but to drink out of plastic bottles, and lacked the infrastructure to deal with them.
Which made me wonder if bringing water filtration systems to India might make a difference, albeit small.... for peanuts here ($500-$1000), an entire school can have clean water.
I've never been to India, but would be interested to hear your thoughts. Perhaps we might try to raise money for a few filters, to start with...
Here was my response:
I agree with the bottled water issue. As much as I detest bottled water, I find that when I'm in the developing world for very short bursts (where I don't have the time to purge my system and adapt) and need reliable, safe water quickly, I rely on bottled water (note: I try to drink tea, boiled water, other boiled beverages or soups for the most part, and only eat fresh, cooked food. Bottled water is a substitute when I can't find these or its simply too hot!). Amongst poor communities, plastic bottles are a huge commodity. Recycling goes on in full, plus the thicker, better bottles are used as water bottles or to store other liquids. They use these for several reasons -- convenience, cost (free to find, recyclable when they are done, easy to replace), how light it is, how sturdy it is, its lack of brittleness, etc. And yes...often they have no other choice.
Water filters are available in abundance in most of the developing world, particularly in non-disaster zones. India has a lot of indigenous water filters that do a very good job...most selling for around $50-$100. Most middle, upper, even poorer class Indians have them installed in their houses, though the best and most effective need access to electricity (they are RO systems). If you really want, you can build one using sand and a large bucket (or see diagram above). This is how most wastewater is treated in the US, though on a much larger scale. Clear water combined with some bleach dosing (aka chlorine disinfection), should render perfectly safe and drinkable water, and all for less than $10.
Probably best of all, there is always the option of boiling...the problem with this is that its very energy intensive and if you use wood/charcoal/kerosene, its simply too expensive. (I tend to boil my water usually in the developing world, except when i've run out of my supply and then use the water i find either at a tea shop or i buy bottled water).
Sometimes its not the filtration that's the problem....its the sourcing of clean water, the collection, the transportation, and the storage of water that are the biggest issues. Outside of the sourcing issues, plastic generally fills these voids.
Of course, for problems like arsenic, fluoride, salinity, etc, where you need more advanced cleaning, or where the water is extremely turbid (cloudy or visibly dirty), it becomes a different issue. These are very regional issues, and generally you can figure out what the biggest water problems in that area are by visiting the NGOs, doctors or govt public health agencies in that area. If its pathogen-related (which is the majority of water quality issues), then generally some proper boiling or filtration/disinfection will quell the problem. But other issues need more specialized solutions.
Finally, I'm not a huge fan of transplanted filters or other mechanisms. Filters from here are not made to withstand water or field conditions there. Expensive systems have a short shelflife, then like every other good transplant, they wither and die. This is partially because there is no one to do regular operation and maintenance, or who has been trained properly to fix even the smallest problems. A COMMON problem is letting untrained hands take over the operation of a technology. Their curiosity gets the better of them, and the technology is quickly rendered useless. Replacement parts are hard to find and buy, and the issue of untrained hands repeats itself. Always look for indigenous units, you are much more likely to have success in terms of adoption, operation/maintenance, and replacement if necessary.
These are my immediate thoughts on the subject. I'm always happy to discuss this further with you...