We drink it, cook with it, wash with it, farm and manufacture with it, bring babies into the world with it and save lives with it. We can’t survive without it.
So what can we do about the 663 million people around the world who are without access to safe, clean water? In honour of World Water Day, we’ve tasked ourselves with exploring the current situation, along with some possible answers.
We all know that water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are critical to health and wellbeing for the prevention of infectious diseases like cholera. Indeed, inadequate WASH conditions and services cause 1.7 million deaths annually, according to UK charity WaterAid. Of these, nearly 900 children a day die from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. Much of this has to do with the lack of proper toilets and sewage treatment, which allows human faeces to contaminate the water supply.
As for medical care, a World Health Organization/UNICEF report found that in low resource settings, 38% of health care facilities don’t have an improved water source, 19% don’t have improved sanitation and 35% lack water and soap for hand washing.
We’ve reached a breaking point, leaving policy makers, researchers, engineers and human rights advocates (among others) racing against the clock to find a sustainable solution. Along with partners, the WHO and UNICEF have committed to addressing the situation with the aim of achieving universal access in all health facilities, in all settings, by 2030. There are also efforts to improve the overall WASH situation in less developed countries.
It seems that the odds are stacked against these proponents of change, but one should never underestimate human determination. People are getting creative and some of the ideas and technologies out there are mind bogglingly clever.
For instance, did you know about the innovative solutions described below? They may just revolutionise WASH and lead to better health and medical care for millions.
- An inexpensive water quality test developed by the University of Bristol and other partners consists of a small, single-use device that can be used in the field, with laboratory-standard accuracy. A mobile phone-based application allows for recording, storing and transmitting results.
- Indian engineer Mayank Midhain has developed an indestructible “smart” public toilet, which has solar panels to power LED lights and exhaust fans. It incorporates smart technologies such as sensors and radio-frequency identification tags, so that the lights and fans switch on automatically when users open the toilet door, and when users exit, the same technology automatically activates floor washing and toilet pan washing systems. A dashboard tracks user numbers, including data on how many times they flushed and used the soap dispensers.
- As part of the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, students at the California Institute of Technology developed a prototype for a self-contained, solar-powered toilet that produces enough power to run an electrochemical reactor that breaks down human waste and, in the process, generates hydrogen. A wastewater treatment system sanitises the liquids, which can then be recycled for flushing or other purposes.
- Gates has also funded the creation of a machine that can convert faeces into clean water that’s safe enough to drink in places lacking modern sewage systems. Through the use of a steam engine, the machine powers itself by producing energy to burn the next batch of waste. There’s even some electricity to spare.
- A number of toilet service providers have set up networks of waterless toilets, which are emptied by waste collectors who rely on mobile technology to tell them when the toilets are full. They then take the waste to treatment facilities.
- One company has designed a simple and inexpensive plastic toilet pan that fits into latrines. When water is poured in, a “trap door” at the bottom shuts before all the water flows through, sealing the edges. This keeps out flying insects that spread diseases, at the same time cutting down on unpleasant smells. It may not be high-tech, but it’s effective!
These and many other pioneering projects are giving people new hope for a healthier future. Doing nothing isn’t an option ‒ there are simply too many lives at stake.