Radically private water

When I was little, I went to India for my Mamaji’s wedding. At that point, we still drank the water, although it was very the last time we did so. I got very sick and lost enough weight that my ribs were visible. In fact, I became so emaciated that I could tickle my bottom few ribs from the inside, much to the horror of my parents. To make things worse, it was hot in Amritsar that year, over 100 degrees, and we were in an old house without air conditioning.

Throughout it all, as the adored foreign child, I was coddled and comforted. It wasn’t that bad for me. Still, it gave me some compassion for those who have to drink water far worse, such as the 2 million children who die each year for want of proper water and sanitation.

The big policy debate over water privatization seems to have ground to a halt. In poor countries, governments do a lousy job of getting water to their people (maybe 30% of Indians have access to clean water), and while de facto privatization proceeds apace, formal privatization schemes seem to have done poorly enough to reduce earlier corporate enthusiasm.

Still, two of the more imaginative schemes I’ve seen in the past year have argued for extreme privatization, decentralizing the provision of clean water down to the sub-village, or even personal level.

For example, the Lifestraw is designed to give each person their own personal water purification system:

… a plastic tube with seven filters: graduated meshes with holes as fine as 6 microns (a human hair is 50 to 100 microns), followed by resin impregnated with iodine and another of activated carbon. It can be worn around the neck and lasts a year.

Lifestraw isn’t perfect, but it filters out at least 99.99 percent of many parasites and bacteria, the demons in most fatal cases of diarrhea. [Link]


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The original Lifestraw was field tested amongst the earthquake refugees in Kashmir.

Although the idea is pretty cool, it has its detractors. Critics argue that there is no market for such a product – that at $3.50 (or possibly even $2), it is still multiple days work to pay for each person’s straw, and it still only lasts a year. They also argue that it doesn’t reduce the long distances people have to travel to get water, thus reducing its appeal, and that local water projects are more effective because of economies of scale [Link].

There there is Dean Kamen’s Slingshot project. Kamen is the inventor of the Segway, and his idea was to use cow dung (and other easily available fuels) to run a special high efficiency Stirling Engine which would produce electricity and clean water for sale:

Dean Kamen, the engineer who invented the Segway, has invented two new devices, each about the size of a washing machine, that can provide much-needed power and clean water in rural villages.

The water purifier makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day from any water source, even sewage. The power generator makes a kilowatt off of anything that burns.

The prototypes cost about $100,000 but eventually he hopes to mass produce them for about $1000 to $2000 which he will lease to local entrepreneurs, who will resell the power and water to local rural villagers in third world countries. The market potential is huge – about 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, and another 1.6 billion don’t have electricity. [Link]

He’s working with Iqbal Qadir, founder of the Grameen Phone business, to try to create the entrepreneurial infrastructure for this to work:

The Slingshot works by taking in contaminated water … and separating out the clean water by vaporizing it. It then shoots the remaining sludge back out a plastic tube. Kamen thinks it could be paired with the power machine and run off the other machine’s waste heat.

“Not required are engineers, pipelines, epidemiologists, or microbiologists,” says Kamen. “You don’t need any -ologists. You don’t need any building permits, bribery, or bureaucracies…”

Quadir is going to try and see if the machines can be produced economically by a factory in Bangladesh. If the numbers work out, not only does he think that distributing them in a decentralized fashion will be good business — he also thinks it will be good public policy. Instead of putting up a 500-megawatt power plant in a developing country, he argues, it would be much better to place 500,000 one-kilowatt power plants in villages all over the place, because then you would create 500,000 entrepreneurs.[Link]

I haven’t heard anything since the project was unveiled in February, and couldn’t find a website for it, so I hope the project hasn’t fallen by the wayside already.

Both of these approaches have the virtue of bypassing an ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy. Both also seem too expensive to work as purely for-profit ventures. Despite what advocates of the Bottom of the Pyramid approach argue, it’s very hard to make money off of the poorest of the poor since they have so little to spend. Even when it might make sense for the poor to invest in private water systems, they simply don’t have the cash to do so.

This is where a third approach comes in, one that emphasizes finance over technical innovation:

The WaterCredit Initiative has a more scaleable approach. Recognizing the creditworthiness of the poor, it has moved from one-time grants to providing small loans, successfully applying microfinance principles to cover the upfront costs of water systems. [Link]

This is more eclectic, and relies purely on available technology. It is not likely to be a full solution to the problem either – people can only invest in water where it is cheap enough to provide a short term economic benefit as opposed to a long term health benefit, which again leaves out the poorest of the poor. Still, it’s an important piece of the puzzle. The Water Credit Initiative has field projects in Bangladesh and India as well as Ethiopia, Honduras and Kenya.

This problem will not be solved overnight. Instead, this is a battle that can only be won drop by drop.





Related posts: World Water Day, A nation parched, Please Sir, Can I Have Some More Paani?

63 thoughts on “Radically private water

  1. TMI, but I was probably that skinny again just at the end of puberty, when I was 135 lbs and 6’3″ tall.

    Damn. That is seriously impressive.

    I had a boyfriend in high school who was 6’4 and 170, and we all thought that was way too skinny…

  2. Salil, I think it is cool too, I think most westerners find it novel, but in its intended use, I could see wearing a big blue straw around your neck becoming a symbol of poverty, sort of like food stamps are here. I’m not sure if that would really be the case, it’s all just conjecture.

    I think the straw is a good idea for the very, very poorest, where there is no hope of local water purification, or for migratory types. But for most villages I think the answer is a municipal water supply. As India is supposed to be rising, hopefully some of the money makers will take up the responsibility for fixing poverty and its related issues, and see it as a benefit to their future.

  3. Shankar,

    Please take a look at this post on the IndianEconomy blog, and the comments therein.

    Okie doke. Here’s the crux I think:

    I agree with Karnani that you have to increase the real incomes of the poor by seeing them as producers. This I believe can be done by two ways. First, the “distribution� route: produce (possibly more) stuff, and give them a larger share. This lump-sum transfer will increase their real incomes. Second, the “production� method: help them produce more and also become more productive. The former is unlikely to appeal to the rich. To do the latter, you have to make markets for the production of the poor more efficient so that they retain more of the value they produce. To make them capable of producing more, you have to educate them. There is where I believe the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid lies. Education has positive returns in today’s world. The return on investment in education is positive. That means, the cost of the education will be more than paid for by the subsequent increase in the real income. But the poor are credit-constrained. So the way to help the poor is to release that credit constraint through financing education. How to do that is a different kettle of fish which we will leave for a later date.

    To which I say, which poor? Rural or urban? Both have a unique set of constraints and origins of power (land, labor, etc). And, with respect to water, does anyone have any insight into the differences in water management for the urban poor vs. rural poor? Seems that decentralization might not be in the best interest for rural dwellers.

    My comment about taxcuts for the poor was in jest, a jab at the spinsters for whom taxcuts are a silver bullet for curbing poverty, ADD and kidney stones.

    And since you plugged a blog, I return the favor. It’s brand new too.

  4. No von Mises – you’re not Dani Rodrik are you? Whoops, clearly you’re not, you’re Jasjeet Bajwa. Sorry, it just would have been very cool if you had been.

    p.s. will try to do a BoP post that deals with some of the issues in the Karnani paper soon. Have been meaning to ever since I read the debate over in Indian Economic Blog.

  5. Unfortunately, most of these sorts of projects are almost always stop-gaps, particularly in disaster relief settings, without real infection-control apparati at the level of the home (since here, water is stored by each household). That can mean something as simple as a container that can be re-filled and emptied easily but is difficult to stick something like a hand into. MSF deploys a great model currently that does just that. It just takes one kid sticking its grubby, disease-filled hand into such a vat to contaminate the entire household, offsetting the value of the initial filtration (which the householder had to pay for, in this deployment model). Additionally, in real-world (particularly, again, emergency relief) settings, that clean water will almost NEVER stay clean for any real length of time without some sort of chemical treatment. This can also be done cheaply, but it needs to be done.

    The overall problem, though, is one of the most discouraging fundamentals of world development. I work in international public health. Clean, ABUNDANT water is one of the most fundamental determinants of health. I was asked recently by someone why, despite vast sums (yes, we can argue this point, but still…) dumped into international development since World War II, despite amazing leaps and bounds in health science and engineering research, the great majority of the world still lacks perhaps the most fundamental pillar of health — an engineering problem solved ages ago, and a medical finding also known since the time of John Snow. These sorts of examples are cheering in a sort of Pollyanna way. But when you look at the real numbers of people who go without clean drinking water and an appreciation for the sort of scale in terms of infrastructure we are really talking about, the backbone can ONLY be initiated and most importantly, SUSTAINED by governments. Aided by the NGO and private sector, surely, but ultimately it’s on the governments’ hands.

    What’s needed is actual political will to push that into actuality in most of these settings. Unfortunately, water and poop aren’t sexy issues – nobody’s buying RED iPods and the like to push this. But the ultimate onus is upon the world community to push host governments to make clean drinking water for all a reality.

  6. We think water is sexy here at Sepia Mutiny. We’ve had several different posts on it, from different bloggers with very different perspectives. We’re all about the wet sari contests ample provision of clean water to the people.

  7. We think water is sexy here at Sepia Mutiny. We’ve had several different posts on it, from different bloggers with very different perspectives. We’re all about the wet sari contests ample provision of clean water to the people.

    So sexy, that we dont hesitate to provide our own blog as a reference for ‘maybe 30% Indians have access to safe drinking water’ when the first link thats spit at you if you google “India water supply” is ~


  8. Ennis baba,

    the link I posted states that ~70% of Indian population in rural areas, and ~90% of Indian population in urban areas has access to protected water sources. Lot of difference between 75% and 30% no ?

  9. The lifestraw is an intriguing idea, but there could be a major problem implementing it. I wonder if people would actually use it or if it would be just another piece of development bric-a-brac that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. Is the plan really to have millions of poor people around South Asia to have one of these gadgets hanging around their neck? I think it might cause a bit of stigma. I can remember reading a time when dalits were forced to carry clay spittoons around their neck so that their contaminated spit wouldn’t dirty the upper caste’s environment (who presumably could plaster their saliva wherever they wanted). The straw would be a very visible marker of class differences and–while that is already there in a myriad of ways–would probably not be taken up whole heartedly.

    Also, the iconography of drinking would change. The rural poor would be depicted always drinking water through these straws, what would happen to cups? It’s small things like this that destroy well intended projects.


  10. I think solar disinfection is so interesting, but unfortunately it seems pretty limiting, too, depending on where people are located, the container they use, how much time they have, etc.

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned chlorine disinfection. It’s not as good as boiling, but much faster and generally a bit cheaper (at least the resources distributed by PSI).

  11. There are other new/promising technologies as well, which haven’t been mentioned…

    For one, check out WaterHealth International: http://www.waterhealth.com. They set up rural water purification centers using a special UV technology developed at Berkeley… the water is sold for about $0.01 per gallon.

    By the way, I doubt the straw will work out well in India… on account of the “juta” concept, which is very much ingrained throughout much of the country.