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Government-Funded Programs Aim to Provide Clean Water for Billions

Chris Simkins

As many people around the world look to secure sources of clean drinking water, governments are funding programs that involve new technologies aimed at providing clean water for billions of people.

One device that shows promise in reducing water contamination is produced by Australian researchers. They have created water filters made of a mix of clay and organic material such as rice husks, tea leaves or coffee grounds. As water drains through the filter contaminants are trapped inside.

Another product that transforms polluted water into safe drinking water is a low cost filter being distributed to tsunami victims in South Asia. It uses the process of osmosis to purify waste water. After harmful bacteria is removed the filtered water is disinfected with chemicals.

"The process is based on microporous hollow fiber membranes, which are essentially drinking straws with a micropropus wall structure," explains Bruce Bifoy, who works with the Australian company Memcor that invented the filter. "We pass the dirty water, and this is some water from a local creek here at Windsor, across the membrane surface to produce a clean filtered water which we then disinfect with some chlorine."

The company now builds huge fully automated purification plants. It also mass produces smaller portable versions of this water filter that treat polluted water. Rhett Butler, who works for a parent company of Memcor invented the small units. He says the devices could save millions of peoples lives.

"I think it's going to be very crucial because we know, after these types of natural disasters, water-borne disease - cholera, typhoid, these things - will take hold," he said. "So clean, pure potable water will be an important consideration in the future."

Susan Murcott, a research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, says the use of water filter technologies can benefit millions of people in places like India, China, Bangladesh, Ghana, Mexico and Peru.

"It is these kinds of very simple technologies using local materials that are low cost and that are user friendly that what I am calling a sustainable technology appropriate for the most vulnerable populations who need safe water around the world, " she says.

In the midwestern U.S. state of Michigan, the city of Grand Rapids has begun operating a plant that uses a new method for disinfecting wastewater and turning it into drinking water. The system uses ultraviolet light instead of chemicals to clean and treat water. The ultraviolet light disinfects wastewater so completely that bacteria and other harmful micro-organisms cannot grow. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell says the system is already helping to improve the quality of the city's water supply.

"The water going into the Grand River from the wastewater treatment plant after it goes through the ultraviolet process is cleaner than the river itself," he says.

Sky Wiseman, a water and sanitation specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, says newly developed water filters, that can be used in the home, can remove harmful contaminants from the water supply.

"The Procter and Gamble company here in America is marketing a product they call the 'Pure Product' which allows people to disinfect the drinking water in the home," he says. "The Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. government, has a program they call the safe water system. All of these technologies are very important because no matter how pure drinking water is when it comes out of a well lets say, people still must have a lot of knowledge not to re-contaminate that water before they use it in their home."

State-of-the art plants like the one in Grand Rapids are too expensive for developing countries. That's why many global companies are now spending their research and development dollars on cheaper more robust water filtration systems that require less energy to operate. These new technologies could have enormous benefits for the estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide who live without safe drinking water.

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