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Academics look for solutions to provide clean water

The 10% – or five million people – can only hope for an interim solution to overcome this problem. Their remote clusters of households are just too far from the big water infrastructure to get connected. 

They are not the people who have taps that do not work, these are the ones who have never seen a tap in their area. They get water from fountains, springs, rivers and even puddles after the rain.

Mining activity and human waste, along with growing populations, are rapidly dirtying these water sources, which in turn leads to outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea   diseases that are an indicator of failing water systems.

 

Without a clear government policy to address these communities, the water research commission hosted a high-level discussion on possible solutions on Tuesday. This brought together people from municipalities, universities and government in a day of ardent discussion and fine finger food.

Dr Bettina Genthe, leader of the water and human health research group at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, said a good example of this is the Olifants River catchment. Its resources are being over-used and disease is rife. "The direct cost of medical care for people with diarrhoea in the catchment is R700-million a year, or R208 per person," she said.

Added to this are the deaths of people who don't receive treatment on time. "We are one of the few countries in the world where the under-five mortality rate has increased, and diarrhoea and dirty water are big reasons for this," she said. In 1990 this rate was 60 deaths per 1 000 live births. In the last reliable statistics for the area, in 2003, this was 66 per 1 000 live births.

"It is just not acceptable," she said. And it is a waste of money, when providing water is cheaper than curing diseases, she said.

This makes finding a technology that can provide clean water for rural communities, without the need for prohibitively expensive infrastructure, imperative.  

Speaking at the discussion, Derek Hanekom, newly-appointed minister of science and technology, said the problem is significant. "It is that last 10% of the population which is really difficult to get to. For these people, until they get a piped solution, we need an interim solution."

This interim solution is point of use technology. So-called because it cleans water where people are using it and not at a big plant that has to be built and connected to standpipes with long lengths of piping.

Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the water research commission, echoed this. "The challenge is the last mile, where you are getting diminishing returns. But people need a solution now. Infrastructure has a range or problems and the timeline cannot be guaranteed, so point of use is a great solution."

Challenge accepted. South African universities have been world leaders in the kind of technology that can clean water in people's houses. Point of use technology comes in all shapes and sizes. But all these programmes are still in the testing and pilot phase.    

At its simplest, the technology can be the same as the filter all students make in primary school – where rocks, stones, gravel and sand are put in a coke bottle to clean the water. Further up the complexity scale, the technology starts to throw in moving parts and chemicals. But no one technology can clean every type of dirty water to a perfect level.

Dr Jo Burgess, research manager at the water research commission, has been perfecting the technology. Her example filters water through a carbon membrane, and keeps thing simple by allowing people to pour dirty water in the top and take clean water out of the bottom.

 

It has made her a finalist in the Patel Smart Pot Challenge and put her in line for the $100 000 grand prize to develop the filter into production. This challenge is scouring the world for the best water purifier.

Burgess said the technology is critical. "With these we can take really hideous rural water and produce something that you are happy to drink." This means that the five million people without water systems can have clean water now, and not have to wait for government to spend the big money, she said.

A similar technology is the AmaDrum, designed by the council for scientific and industrial research. This looks like a simple water tank with a tap at the bottom, but cleans any water that is poured in the top. It has seen limited success in the field, but like all its peers has not had government buy-in to take it further. 

And by investing in this technology and developing the best models, we are securing future supply for those who currently have water. Jay Bhagwan, director of water use and waste management at the water research commission, said the future is one where universal access becomes more and more difficult to provide.

Water systems are already collapsing with the lack of maintenance. And without investment this trend will continue. "By designing these solutions for people who don't have clean water now, we are preparing solutions for our own future," he said.

 

Mariette Swart, from the department of water affairs, said that it was up to the academics to advise government on how to get water to rural people. If this happened then policies could be created and pilot programmes could move to the implementation phase.

But the eventual goal should still be to get piped water to all these communities, said Hanekom.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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