Earlier this year, my company WaterFilters.NET posed a challenging question to students nationwide:
“With an increasing global population, particularly in developing countries, what would you create to help reduce water shortages, and ensure all people had nearby access to clean drinking water?”
The best response would be awarded our $500 Future of Water scholarship, while two runners-up would be awarded a WaterFilters.NET Back To School Care Package.
Today, I am proud to announce the winner and runners-up for this challenge – and to share their responses with you.
The response awarded the $500 scholarship, by Mona Dai, may be found below. A Valley Park, Missouri native, Mona is a civil and environmental engineering student currently attending Duke University. She is currently studying abroad in Queensland, Australia where she is hard at work on both her studies – and on improving her rock climbing abilities.
We were lucky to receive Mona’s response, as we were all our respondents. I encourage you to read and share Mona’s winning solution to our world’s water shortage crisis, as well as the responses from our first runner-up and second runner-up.
Last summer, I went on a river safari with students from my university in Uganda. Along the way, we encountered a small village at the edge of the game preserve. We were alarmed to see community members gathering water from the very river that we had just seen thrived poisonous water snakes and crocodiles. Stranger still, every individual walking down the shore passed a small yet newly constructed water treatment plant where they could have easily and safely gained clean drinking water. When we asked our guide why they passed up the facility, he simply answered, “No money.”
Because of situations like this, the definition of “access” to clean drinking water has become muddled in many parts of the world. According to the Uganda Water and Sanitation NGO Network (USWASNET), a jerry can of water can cost anywhere from 150 to 2000 Ugandan shillings (Amanu, 2011). As the average weekly income of a Ugandan family is only around 7,500 shillings, it is no wonder that family heads choose the more economical (yet riskier) route when it comes to water (PeacebuildingData, 2010). At the same time, the struggling government can hardly be blamed for charging users as they must pay for maintenance and startup costs for instilling these well-intentioned facilities.
To alleviate this problem, I propose building a system that is multifaceted. For the most part, the technical details will be the same as what has been established: water will be pumped from a well, filtered through a sand bed, and then have electricity run through it and heated to kill pathogens. The key detail lies in the photovoltaic cells responsible for running the electric current through the water. Instead of being streamed singly for this one use, I would run a power charging station off of the panels as well. This would be ideal since the majority of adults have mobile phones in villages, even when they lack running water or wells. It appears practical to charge cell phone users for the facilities because if they can afford this luxury, they also have the means to improve the lifestyle of the less fortunate. This plan provides an extra incentive without an extra cost. Charging booths already exist taking around 500 shillings per use, right in the middle of the price range for a jerry can of water (Kelly, 2007).
The distinctiveness of this idea lies in the business model. Since the photovoltaic cells will be dual wired to charge cell phones and make water potable, only the former will have a price and those only seeking water may attain it freely. A cell phone charging business is ideal because it has already proved to be a steady and reliable source of income anywhere where there is no reliable source of electricity. For instance, medical clinics in northern Togo with solar panels commonly redirect the current to create cell phone charging stations and generate enough money to pay their nurses and assistants.
I am confident that such a concept will work as I have already begun a similar startup in northern Togo this summer. We have set up a solar water heater to thermally kill pathogens in human wastewater. At the same time, we are using biogas produced by bacteria to generate electricity for charging cell phones and growing algae to feed and sell fish. The community council has thus agreed to make the latrines free since their profits will come from these alternatives. It seems in cases like these that the problem is cost, not means, a heterogeneous and moneymaking system is the solution to expanding drinking water access.
Amanu, D. (2011, February 28). UGANDA: Water shortage threatens residents. In
AfricaNews. Retrieved July 29, 2013
Kelly, K. (2007, January 12). Phone Charging Booths in Uganda. In Street Use.
Retrieved July 29, 2013
PeacebuildingData. Socio-Economic Characteristics (2010). In Harvard
Humanitarian Initiative. Retrieved July 29, 2013
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