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Innovators Aim to Prevent Water-Borne Illnesses During Natural Disasters

By 3p Contributor

By Ben Park

"Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink."
- Samuel Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Coleridge was describing a sea journey when he wrote these words in the late 18th century. But those same words, slightly updated for modern times, could be used to describe the Philippines after the 2013 typhoon or Haiti after flooding in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

While scarcity due to climactic and economic conditions receives the bulk of attention, there is another form of water crisis that comes on the heels of natural and man-made disasters: too much water of the wrong kind.

Less than 3 percent of the Earth's water is fresh, and only 0.3 percent of that water is found on the Earth's surface in lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. When natural disaster strikes, the sources of improved, fresh water are compromised. In the case of the Philippines where fresh water was already in limited supply during normal conditions, the situation becomes desperate.

After the typhoon, the Associated Press reported that Filipinos "resorted to scooping from streams, catching rainwater in buckets and smashing open pipes to obtain what is left from disabled pumping stations. With at least 600,000 people homeless, the demand is massive."

A heavyweight problem

In disaster cases, the risk of water contamination -- and the diseases it causes -- dramatically heighten from the already frightening norm. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that diarrhea, typically caused by contaminated water, causes 4 percent of all deaths and 5 percent of health loss to disability worldwide. Gastrointestinal infections -- most caused by poor water -- kill around 2.2 million people globally each year, mostly children in developing countries.

Water comprises 65 to 75 percent of human body weight. Humans can last only three to five days without it. In disasters, victims often resort to whatever source of water they can find -- leading to diseases such as cholera, which can kill a person within days.

Agencies such as the Red Cross are at the ready to provide essential water, but the amount of assistance they can provide is inhibited by one major factor: Water is heavy (a gallon of it weighs 8.34 pounds) and expensive to ship.

Innovation creates solutions

The good news is that innovation is leading to some intriguing solutions that center on creating fresh water at the source of the problem.

A French company called Eole Water is using wind turbines to create water from air. A prototype system near Abu Dhabi has been able to collect an average of more than 62 liters of water an hour from dry desert air.

EcoloBlue makes generators that extract water from the humidity in the air and use a multi-filtering process to ensure cleanliness. An EB26 system can be combined with a solar generator to produce between one and three gallons of clean water a day.

Another potential solution, called the Watercone, is a simple and elegant solar still. Pour salty or brackish water into the pan, then place the Watercone on top. The black pan absorbs the sunlight and heats the water. The evaporated water condensates into droplets of clean water that trickle down the inner wall into a trough at the outer edge of the cone.

Back in 2013, inhabitat.com contributor Rebecca Paul listed a few other promising innovations that are worth a mention. These include:

  • The Lifestraw, a one-person filter shaped like a cigar that removes pathogens in the time it takes water to travel from its source to the drinker's lips.

  • Ceramic water filters provided by UNICEF and the Water and Sanitation Program with tiny pores small enough to remove virtually all bacteria and protozoa.

  • The Cycloclean from Nippon Basic, which harnesses kinetic energy from peddling a bicycle to purify water from any potable drinking source.

  • The Life Sack, which uses SODIS (Solar Water Disinfection Process), a thermal treatment process that kills deadly microorganisms and bacteria in water.

  • The Pure Water Bottle, a device that is capable of filtering soiled water in two minutes using a combination of four micron-sized water filters and a wind-up ultraviolet light system.

  • The Solarball, a device slightly larger than a bowling ball that when placed in the sun uses evaporation to separate dirt and contaminants from water.

Water for critical medical situations

The solutions above address the critical issue of clean drinking water, but there's also the need to deliver water within a sterile saline solution delivered intravenously. For people suffering from critical conditions such as cholera, fluid through the veins is the only method of rehydrating the body quickly enough for patients to recover.

But the weight of water also effects the logistical cost of shipping IV-hydration solutions used to treat water-borne disease. These bags contain 99.1 percent water. It costs more than $700, for example, to ship 14 units of 1-liter saline IV bags from San Francisco to Conakry, Guinea in Africa via the FedEx for medical devices rate.

Fortunately there is a solution at hand for cheaper shipping and easier storage of saline IV bags. Fosmo Med offers Maji, a field hydration system for IV use that is shipped without water. An estimated 16 Maji bags can be shipped for the same cost as one traditional IV saline bag. Once onsite, forward osmosis technology converts local water into a sterile solution without requiring power of any kind.

Greater hope for the future

Solving the worldwide fresh water problem will take long-term dedication, but thanks to a wide range of organizations contributing resources and innovation using simple and inexpensive technologies, there is more hope than ever for the future -- whether the problem is too little or too much water.

Ben Park is the founder and CEO of Fosmo Med.

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