An eco-friendly solution to India's water problem

New Delhi: The scarcity of water resources in the central and some western regions of India is pretty gruesome forcing the villagers walk several kilometers to fetch a single bucket of water. Even then, the water is not potable by international standards.

Most villagers consume unsafe drinking water on a daily basis. Some of these families opt for boiling the water prior to drinking which can be costly. Those who can afford it, buy bottled water to reduce the risks of such diseases, while economically and financially weaker people continue to consume impure water which eventually causes disease and death.

A Canadian scientist, Dr. David Manz, however, has invented and designed an amazing tool that could solve this problem. He has developed a low cost bio-sand water filter that effectively removes all the dissolved particles and pathogens from water. 

This slow purifying process manages to remove up to 98% of bacteria, 100% of viruses, 99% of parasites, protozoa, amoebae, and worms, 95% of heavy metals, and with a slight modification, 93% of arsenic. It manages to eliminate illnesses such as Typhoid, Cholera, Hepatitus A, Rotavirus, E-coli bacteria, and other dysentery causing organisms.

Tested and approved by various governments, healthcare institutions, and research departments, the bio-sand technology has effectively been introduced in over 66 countries. The low cost Bio-sand filter costs about Rs.3,000 and works for 30 years. It is easy to maintain and filters 84 litres of water daily, enough for 10-12 people, or 70 schoolchildren. There are no ongoing costs, no maintenance costs, and no electricity costs.

India definitely needed such a technique that could change the fate of thousands of lives in rural areas. A US based couple Michael Lipman and Cathy Forsberg with Peace Corp and Rotary backgrounds started the South Asia Pure Water Initiative, Inc. (SAPWII) in Karnataka after receiving a start-up grant from a foundation in Connecticut in 2005.

The Bio-sand filter is made of locally available cement, sand and pebbles. It consists of various layers of sand and pebbles, and a 2-inch standing water layer known as the "bio-layer". The dirty water is poured on top, and meets with the bio-layer where bacterial predation occurs. Then the water moves through the filtration sand and, because of an electrostatic charge, viruses adhere to the fine sand and are trapped within. This is known as adsorption. Furthermore, because there's no food, no light, and no oxygen, further pathogen die-off takes place. The water then flows down into the pebbles and comes back up in an outlet tube, and is stored in a clean water container with a lid to protect it from re-contamination.

"The technology was exactly what the country needed," Shivani Kumar, India Country Representative of SAPWII said. "Till date, SAPWII has distributed 12,000 filters, positively impacting 1,50,000 villagers."

They run 5-day professional training programmes for NGOs and have developed a network across the country consisting of 90 NGOs in 22 states. Through the network, 25,000 filters have been distributed. "The way to spread this technology quicker and faster is through India's NGOs. We still have a long way to go," says Kumar.

Water borne diseases are the number one cause of deaths worldwide, with WHO and CDC estimates pinning 3.5 million deaths every year to contaminated drinking water. In India alone, around 2,000 people die every day due to lack of clean drinking water, and out of these, children under the age of five are most vulnerable.

"It's really a case of nature purifying nature. This simple, eco-friendly solution is found within nature itself. I still get amazed!" says Kumar.

NGOs work in different ways. Sometimes they sell the filter to an individual user who then maintains it. Sometimes a villager can receive microfinancing, while others are subsidized from their local NGO. It depends on which model works in a particular village. "The idea is to inculcate the sense of ownership amongst villagers. It should not be treated as charity. When villagers contribute even Rs. 500 towards their filter, they are more likely to value it." Kumar says. 

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