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Can low-tech solution solve water crisis?

August 31st, 2009
10:48 AM ET

For millions in the developing world, water can be as dangerous as it is life saving, spreading life-threatening diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera.

Is enough being done to ensure that the developing world has clean water?

Every day men, women and children are forced to drink, bathe and wash clothes and utensils in fetid supplies ripe with sewage.

One such slum is Kibera, part of the Kenyan capital Nairobi – but residents there hope that a low-tech solution is at hand.

Locals now collect water from infected tanks, pour it into clear plastic bottles and then leave them on tin rooftops for at least six hours.

Laboratory tests reveal that the sun kills dangerous disease-spreading bacteria by zapping them with UV radiation and heat through a process known as solar disinfection.

An estimated two million people around the world are now using solar disinfection to draw clean water.

Is enough being done to ensure that the developing world has clean water? Are low-tech solutions losing out to higher-cost developments?

Let us know what you think and we will use some of the comments on tonight's show, when you can also watch David McKenzie’s report from Kibera.

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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Brett Nortje

    If the sun can be used to disinfect the water, and it is cheaper then boiling it, then I say go for it!

    If they want huge reserves of water though they should build huge stadium sized offshore tankers for disinfecting water, that could then be 'sold' to the other inland regions.

    If they want to make it quckly though they could just boil it, but that costs wood. Maybe they could boil drinking water in a kettle, a minimal cost to the state that would boost that stock for some time, and in turn boost related stocks, but that won't save the country.

    What about food? Haven't you heard about surplus redistribution? The farmers in the west and richer countries always have surplus, so why not legally allocate a portion, based on what theyseasonally turf out, for redistribution? Or, if they don't like that idea, then the state could grow famrs on state land for them, costing them minimally, and setting them up for profits at home, as they won't donate all the food. They have the land, why not put it to good use?

    August 31, 2009 at 11:54 am | Reply
  2. Anthony Harris

    Heating plastic bottles can cause the release of chemicals used to make plastic bottles to mix with the water; leading to future cancerous or malignant cell development in the gastro intestinal area of the body. It may increase growth of cancer incident statistics in the area if not properly researched. Boiling is still the number one low-tech method to rid water of bacteria.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  3. Charles Linden

    Here is a noted lack of attention to people in the "developing" countries as well as even some in already developed countries-
    Last week I saw on CNN a lady who is fashioning water filters from a ceramic material-what´s surprising to myself is that we have been doint that here in Durango , Mexico for decades (even before I arrived in 1983) Pure water, for drinking, is hard enough to find. So here you either buy bottled water (which is relatively expensive for the locals, or you install an in-line filtration system (also beyond the reach of many folk) or , you can use the good ól trusted way of filtering either through a ceramic filter or stone that they have here and use for the same purpose.
    Yes, they have "Potable" water- but you really wouldn´t want to drink much. The alimentation of water to homes is very porous, dirty, and they seldom add chlorine to eliminate the bacteria from the water.
    Another system I am working with here, through the local University is a small ceramis stove (Made by Stovetech and originally designed by Aprovecho Research) again, for those of low economic resources available, and being a wood burning unit , releases fewer toxins into the air...and every year there are stories of people sophicated in their homes via use of coal burning stoves which are inefficient.
    The small stoves that are available are energy efficient, cleaner burning and easily affordable by poor people, not to mention that the possibility of intoxication is reduced considerable.
    Along with programs as these, an important factor often overlooked is educating people, on how to do things more effectively, efficiently and safely. Many times "WE" from the developed world think that just by throwing money and "stuff" at a problem it will solve itself. In many cases here I have seen that approach backfire. People come though, make a presentation, "dump" off their product and leave, and in a short time the people are back where they were before, and now they have a piece of junk that often winds up polluting the countryside (and there is so much of that here!)
    I´d like to see a body similar to "The Peace Corps" rise up again, not just Americans, but in a multinational sense, and be able to enter the societies and social circles and spand "Time" not so much money to help educate the "pueblo".

    August 31, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  4. Joel Shroff

    Enough has only been done once everybody has guaranteed access to clean water. However, I doubt that that will happen anytime soon, being that our priority is making a short time profit instead of making sure that all human beings have access to necessities. I think that it would be possible for us all to have food and water in abundance, but in order for that to happen we would need to change our mentality and get our priorities straight.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  5. Jim Smith

    Not only does this work, if the water is later filtered through a clean cloth, it will even look like clean water. Nor is this new. Many sewage treatment plants use some variety of this technique, in larger versions, of course, as part of their treatments.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  6. MyProfe

    Michael Pritchard's Lifesaver water-purification bottle converts up to 6,000 liters of fowl water to drinkable water in seconds on a single cartridge. http://www.ted.com/speakers/michael_pritchard.html

    August 31, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  7. Brad Shaw

    @Anthony Harris

    Exactly the first thing I thought of when first read the article. Heating in plastic bottles is only going to cause more health problems in the long run.

    If they would like to use this method then they should try to acquire clear glass bottles instead. It's fine to say they should boil, but that requires the use of electricity, gas or wood and certainly isn't the greenest solution. Now if they could boil with solar ovens that would be the best idea IMO.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  8. Mark Tiele Westra

    The main challenge with disseminating and scaling up proven low cost solutions such as SODIS, but also those that involve localy produced water pumps, irrigation methods, manual drilling techniques, etc, is that there is little money to be made by western companies.

    It is a classical case of market failure: if the knowledge and skills would be present in development countries to produce and sell these options, locally companies would make money. But there is no problem owner of getting the knowledge and skills to the right place, as there is no money to be made by doing that. The only parties that do disseminate knowledge are NGO's, and their capacity to do is is far too small.

    In the case of SODIS, the complication is that it is a totally free technology (you just need an empty bottle and the knowledge), so there is no money to be made by anyone. That means that probably the most logical place to disseminate this specific solution is in schools.

    examples of other solutions can be found at http://www.akvo.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    mark westra

    August 31, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  9. David Turnmire

    It's pretty obvious that any solution that deals with free energy sources like the sun or wind have long been downplayed here in the US and around the world all for the sake of the mighty dollar. As long as industry can't devise a plan to charge for the sun and wind then these energy sources will always take a backseat to the more profit based industries.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  10. Mondher

    Expert advise on this subject is warranted because people's health is at risk. Solar sterilization in plastic is certainly questionable, as plastisizers will be released in the water under UV attack. The best option is to use cholrine. "Javel" in africa which is an old French brand name. The use of Permanganate of potassium will work very well too. There is an after taste, but not that bad when you thinlk of the consequences of drinking unclean water. The disinfection process is inexpensive and fast. Most Africans with a minimum of schooling should now both methods. Letting water settle in tanks or preferably clay pots should eliminate turpidity and bad taste. All the above are expediantes and will never make up for fresh and clean drinking water...

    August 31, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  11. AlanB

    What about working on the ROOT problem in the "developing world"? Too many mouths to feed.

    August 31, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  12. Lindsay Sharpe

    The Romans added wine to their water to purify it. That's why we have wine mixed with water at comunion services. I guess I'm suggesting that we provide cheap wine for the poor until water purification plants can be built.

    August 31, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  13. Seymour

    I find comments are always useful for the various suggestions provided. Some will be useful, some appear as platforms for blame. May I ask if anyone has ever seen a poor or starving leader of any country (poor or rich)? Any problems with their water purity? The world does need to look to help those in need where ever they may be. The world does not need to make leaders more comfortable or wealthier in the process. When starvation or thirst is found, their should be an undertaking to show that the country of origin will help their people with their problem. Maybe the military might of the 'free' world could be used to enforce the provision of the aid to the people who need it. If a corrupt country refuses to 'play ball', then have a constant world media pressure until and beyond when we are fed up with it! Maybe we need to say to companies or people who create and produce those items to help the world should have a freedom of tax to encourage such aid. WOULD YOU PAY MORE TAX TO ALLOW A COMPANY TO DO THIS?

    August 31, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  14. Jorge Monteiro

    Yes. I've herad about it some time ago. Yes it works BUT there is a contra ... . Plastic bottles do have the potential for Cancer development on account of chemical substances they leave on the water. As far i can remember that happens with CLEAR vases . That's why the European Union has a directive recommending the use of DARKENER bottles . That's something to take account of .... One of the persons who did a comment (Brad Shaw) has, perhaps, the best answer for it ...

    August 31, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  15. Rasmussen74

    They should think Solar in creating the energy used to both heat the water to kill bacteria as well as giving them clean energy. They get plenty of sun there so use it!

    August 31, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  16. Ruth Lynne Snow

    My husband and I are serving as humanitarian missionaries in Albania and are worried about the abundance of empty plastic 6 liter bottles and the lack of really safe water. Your article is inspiring and could be used throughout the world. Thank you so much.

    August 31, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  17. Cajun

    Get them glass bottles instaed of plastic bottles. Teach them how to use evaporation techniques to capture the condensate.

    August 31, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  18. Michael Gehrisch

    While the use of plastic may carry other potential long-term problems, glass blocks UV rays preventing sterilization of the water.

    August 31, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  19. Brent

    I don't want to sound cold hearted but I think it's time to ask the question "What is the objective of saving the lives of the billions of third world people?" I'm inclined to agree with AllanB, there are too many mouths to feed. We need to look at the problem on a bigger scale. Is it our expectation that everyone everywhere should have a standard of living that is even half or even a quarter of what we have in North America? As we approach 7-billion humans on our already stressed planet is it realistic to think that there are enough readily available resources – food, water, minerals, etc, etc. to sustain an ever growing population? At what point, for the sake of the entire human race, to we start looking at mass sterilization? When the human race reaches a level where the planet cannot sustain us, when fisheries fail, when the extraction of ever more difficult to find minerals and oil has such a huge impact on the environment it impacts us in ways we can’t imagine, when crops fail on a massive scale due to climate change and when pandemics breakout because populations are under stress from poor nutrition, bad water and over crowded living conditions, will we look back and reconsider our current high ideals of saving everyone as folly at the expense of the entire human race? If we ultimately kill ourselves off, the planet Earth will continue to go around the Sun as it has for billions of years, the only difference will be that it will be without humans. At this time it can be argued, because there is no evidence the contrary, that we are the only creatures in the entire Universe aware of its place in the Cosmos. Are we destined to completely blow this unique position because we can’t conceive of an alternative to our current misguided concepts?

    August 31, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  20. Chris R


    Redistribution of excess is a good idea. Unfortunately, its usually hampered by the logistical realities of getting bulk food stuff to remote locations. Many times the locations that need the food most aren't easily accessible by truck, train, or boat. So you have a significant problem economically getting the food where you need it in sufficient quantities. Even when the transportation network exists its not uncommon for local governments to restrict the transportation of the materials – especially if its bound for a disputed territory. These are pretty significant problems – in fact, they are probably more difficult to resolve than just growing the surplus food.

    August 31, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  21. Chris R

    One more comment, in a situation like this the potential long term health effects of plastic are insignificant in comparison to the short term risk of death from drinking unclean water. Millions of people die each year from having to use unsanitary water – in comparison the unproven potential risk from plastic bottles (and really, only from polycarbonate plastic that uses BPAs and that still hasn't been proven according to the peer reviewed literature) is vanishingly small.

    Also, using wood or coal fired stoves to boil water is not an optimal solution either. Firewood is not limitless after all and making the assumption that it can be had for the taking, or even economically, is unwarranted. I won't even go into the health issues associated with hundreds of thousands of wood and coal fired cook stoves. Lastly, it actually takes quite a bit of energy to boil water so the energy input isn't inconsiderable. As such, they'll use a wood/coal to boil water that they could be using for actually cooking food.

    August 31, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  22. Wayne Berger

    I work at a cultural-educational radio station in Guatemala. We have promoted this SODIS method as well as others for many years in an effort to help the rural and poorer communities. I, as many have expressed, was bothered by the plastic components from the bottles. We tried glass and discovered that the UV light that is the basis of the process does not penetrate glass. So we are forced to use the plastic and hope it is the lesser health risk.

    August 31, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  23. Peter M

    Sounds like a good idea – except you do get some chemicals from the plastic – but it's worth the risk if you cant find clean water – i think we need to take a good look at the companies and people dumping in the rivers who cause this problem in the first place – also we've heard about the water shortage for many many years – surley countries have had enough time to develop water filtering systems – if not why not? Sad;y though it will result to the following – not untill every last drop of clean water has been consumed, every last tree cut down and every scrap of earth contaminated the mankind will realize that money cannot buy everything – save the planet people and think about you childrens futures – as for the governments shame on you for not doing enough or waiting until we start having a major catastrophe to do anything

    August 31, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  24. Roy

    Why can we not use desalinated seawater for these people? Here in Saudi Arabia there is very little or no rain but we never have a water shortage due to the desalination plants. I guess the answer is if you have the money then anything is possible.

    The rich nations should pay for seawater desalination plants to be built around the affected countries and also pay to pipe the water across country to the affected peoples.

    August 31, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  25. Sakura Eri Maezono

    I actually like the idea and I'm very willing to try it out myself:-) Using natural resources productively is of my interest mainly because there are so much advantages in this. It doesn't mean that we are in an empirical world where technology improves every now and then, we should consider "low-tech" as obsolete. In fact, it won't only save money and time but also resources itself and moreover won't hurt mother nature in any way. It is inevitable though to compare it's effectiveness with the "high tech" ways but of course, we do have to consider that there will always be limits in everything. There's only one thing I'm trying to point out here and that is, It won't hurt to try and I 100% go for this idea:)

    September 1, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  26. Serge Daenen

    If this is the solution why not replace the plastic bottles by glass (non-tainted) ones (just don't fill till the top) ?

    September 1, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  27. liz

    The idea is quite good but you cannot change the fact that though it is proven in laboratory experiments, it would really take lots of explanation and proper advertisement from the government or a society to make this thing possible. I'm still for boiling water for it is safer than simply exposing the water to sun in a certain span of time.

    September 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  28. Ana Carmela Tatel

    -:if laboratory tests say that solar disinfection can kill dangerous disease-causing bacteria,then,why not try it. water is very important in our lives and if there's a clean water-shortage,we have to look for solutions for this. but if a country is poor and they can not afford hi-tech solution, it is better to go for the low-tech than use deadly water and wait to die.

    September 2, 2009 at 10:26 am | Reply
  29. Charles Cornejo

    Now that the world is facing several crises, I do think that trying out simpler and cheaper solutions to problems like this would be very beneficial. SInce developing countries have less budget for other consumption, trying alternatives can be one of the many ways that water can be safely drunk, at the least.. Development of those techniques is only needed to assure of better results, because we are not sure that plastic bottles are that safe when re-used. Trying low cost techniques is not a loss, for what's important is that safe water can be served to many people around the world.

    September 2, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  30. Myka Shem Brion

    It's a good thing that people can think such idea of disinfecting water. It will help us economically for it is cheaper than other methods. But according to what I read, incidence of diarreal diseases was not significantly decreased in the solar disinfection method.

    For me, it's not enough to disinfect water, it should be sterilized although it would be expensive, health is still more important.

    September 2, 2009 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  31. Teesha Catherine Banta

    I have just read another article regarding solar water disinfection which is also used in Indonesia. They pointed out some reasons why the people there are still hesitant in using the process – lack of plastic bottles (they sell the bottles to earn money), long disinfection period, weather factors, and not advisable for children below two years old and people with HIV/AIDS.

    Solar water disinfection is a good response to water pollution but it is still not the 100% solution. We can use this process for now but we should still think of better ways of solving water crisis of providing safe water to less fortunate people. Low-tech solution can be the answer if we would just focus and research on it more.

    This just shows that things are still needed to be done regarding water crisis.

    September 3, 2009 at 12:36 am | Reply
  32. Gerry Magbity

    I want to bring this up and I'm sure that it is not new. It should be well understood that the use of sunlight to disinfect water will not on it's own guarantee the reduction of diarrhoea and cholera cases. It should be used in combination with hygiene promotion etc.

    September 3, 2009 at 8:08 am | Reply
  33. Donzky

    its just sad to think that this method can't be applied to waters with high heavy-metal contents. i think another problem we should consider is our pipe lines. Century-pipes (pipe lines more that 100 years old) deteriorate and the Lead component of if tears of, which makes the water unsafe to drink. Water in communities near volcanic sites have sulfur in them, making it acidic. this hastens the tearing of of lead in our lines, giving high amount of metal in their waters

    September 4, 2009 at 2:23 am | Reply
  34. lourdes jan alvero

    Solar disinfection is indeed a great discovery, but we should not solely depend on this. Of course solar disinfection is not just a mere exposure of water, we should also take into consideration the vessels we are using and how "dirty" the water is. This low tech solution is cost and energy efficient, but extra precautionary acts won't hurt right?of course you can always boil your water if you want. I think, more scientific confirmations should be made and if done so, having an information drive should be next.

    September 4, 2009 at 6:52 am | Reply
  35. Abigail Encina

    For developing countries, I would say that this technique is good especially for its feature that is simple and cheaper than boiling water for killing and destroying bacteria. But for me, the method of just exposing the contaminated water in radiation and processing it through solar disinfection is not enough to claim that the water is now potable and safe to use. Thus, we have to make further studies and several tests to make sure and to confirm that this low-tech solution in solving water crisis will do help countries having water crisis.

    September 5, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  36. Abigail Encina

    For developing countries, I would say that this technique is good especially for its feature that is simple and cheaper than boiling water for killing and destroying bacteria. But for me, the method of just exposing the contaminated water in radiation and processing it through solar disinfection is not enough to claim that the water is now potable and safe to use. Thus, we have to make further studies and several tests to make sure and to confirm that this low-tech solution will do help countries having water crisis.

    September 5, 2009 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  37. Wilson Aala

    Low tech solutions are indeed ingenious ways in reducing the risk of contamination of the drinking water in the said areas. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the drinking water that these people use is safe. Solar disinfection is effective only if the vessel used to contain the water does not reflect the UV rays that is needed to disinfect the water (glass for example reflects UV rays which means that colliformes are free to multiply). One technique that they can utilize is the simple boiling of water for 10 minutes after it has started to boil. It could be noted that low tech solutions are not dying or losing out to high tech ones; on the contrary, low tech solutions pave the way for the transition to a better solution to the crisis.

    September 6, 2009 at 7:12 am | Reply
  38. Deziree A. Labrador

    Low technolgy solution can be a great alternative to those ways which are more complex and expensive.However,this does not ensure that it could serve same effects as what high tech solution could possibly give.This is just the first step and they "we" must keep on trying to find ways to improve this nevertheless good idea.

    September 14, 2009 at 5:56 am | Reply

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