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November 13, 2007

The Future of Drinking Water: Making it Safe

In Dhaka, the capital of Bhangladesh, 30 percent of the city’s 12 million residents lack safe drinking water. Women and girls in rural Africa walk up to several miles a day to collect water for daily necessities. Nearly 1 million squatters live on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, cut off from the municipal water and sewer system and vulnerable to waterborne diseases.

These tragedies present complex challenges in the world of water and public health in the coming decades and demand creative solutions. The two-year-old Safe Water Network (SWN), aims to be a catalyst in developing practical remedies to alleviate the burden faced by the nearly 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to safe drinking water.

The nonprofit was launched in 2006 by a group of prominent business and civic leaders to fund innovative strategies that can be deployed on a large scale. “It’s an opportunity to make it possible for private sector funding capabilities to be more broadly applied against this issue,” said Kurt Soderlund, chief operating officer of SWN and a participant in an October 29 water and health symposium at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Our focus is to really identify solutions and vet them, find the most promising, test them and make sure they stand up to the demands and requirements of developing world populations and situations,” Soderlund said.

Sponsored by the School's Center for Water and Health, the symposium, “The Future of Drinking Water: Aligning Public, Private and Academic Partnerships,” brought together School faculty engaged in public health-related water research, representatives of organizations working to bring clean drinking water to populations that do without, and philanthropists committed to increasing access to potable water.

Kellogg Schwab, PhD, director of the Center—which is lending its expertise in water-related research to SWN’s work—provided a sense of the scale and severity of the problems caused by lack of access to safe drinking water.  

At any given time, he said, some 200 million people have gastroenteritis, with a good chance the source of infection was water contaminated with diarrhea-causing pathogens, including cholera, Shigella or norovirus. As many as 900,000 people die each year from fluid loss associated with rotavirus. Every 15 seconds a child dies from diarrheal disease.

And while taking a drink of water in the United States no longer carries the threat of cholera or typhoid fever—as it did 100 years ago—Schwab said that new problems pose new risks. Emerging pathogens resistant to chlorine disinfection. Aging water pipes. Agricultural contamination of surface and groundwater. 

The Center for Water and Health is currently testing the effectiveness of some “point-of-use” water treatment systems—typically meant for use in the home—to provide potable water to isolated and rural communities in developing countries. One such strategy is the use of ceramic water filters, in the form of pots made from terracotta clay and sawdust. Unclean water is pored through the pot, which is completely porous, to strain potentially deadly bacteria. The filtered water is collected in a container beneath the pot.

The next step, Schwab says, is field-testing. “We’ll follow up and see what did and didn’t work. How can the implementation be made sustainable?”

As an example of a successful community-level clean water delivery system, Soderlund cited the WaterHealth Centre model developed by WaterHealth International, a California-based company that has provided affordable water purification systems to communities in India, the Philippines and Mexico.

The company has focused much of its work in rural India, establishing 50 centres in the state of Andhra Pradesh that each serve communities of about 6,000. As part of a comprehensive package of services, WaterHealth International’s India-based employees construct the centers, which use a low-cost ultraviolet water disinfection system. The company teamed up with a private Indian bank to provide financing.

Impressed by this private sector approach to the provision of safe drinking water, SWN is supporting WaterHealth International’s expansion into Africa to develop similar centres. 

“We’re looking to be a catalyst for the broad-scale rollout of some solutions,” Soderlund said.

With respect to the role of the public sector in making safe drinking water available to those who need it, Soderlund said that SWN seeks to step in where government hasn’t.

“From our perspective, the idea is not to wait for government,” he said. “Certainly the responsibility might be there but responsibility doesn’t translate into action. We’re looking for initiatives to accelerate the availability of safe water.”

WaterHealth International CEO Tralance Addy echoed Soderlund’s assessment. “Government doesn’t really hit the people we’re looking at,” he said. “They don’t have much power and they don’t make a lot of noise. Government actually looks for answers from other people, and if something works some government official may listen.”--Jackie Powder

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna L. Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.