The KWAHO office in the Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi is just a short five minute walk from where we parked our car today, but five minutes is more than enough to feel the crushing poverty that envelopes one of the largest slums in Africa. About the size of Central Park, perhaps as many as 750,000 people subsist here on about one dollar per day. The exact number is a matter of dispute, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to over 1 million. What is not disputed is the fact that access to safe water is a huge issue here. Much of the water comes from private vendors, whose barely-buried pipes are patched and re-patched with tape to stem the many leaks where water exists and microbes enter. The water is dangerous.
Ducking through the metal door into the KWAHO compound brings relief from the squalor outside. Our partner, KWAHO, works here to introduce and spread the practice of SODIS, a method of purifying water simply by placing PET bottles of water in the sun for six hours. The practice has proven very effective on sunny days when used with clear water, substantially reducing rates of waterborne-disease where adopted. The water in Kibera is contaminated but clear, so the very cost effective method is ideal for the area.
Francis Kage is KWAHO’s Program Officer, and overseas two SODIS projects, one here and the other in Nyalanda. He is also in charge of KWAHO’s UNICEF projects. With a Masters degree in Environmental Science, Francis says he feels driven to learn about water technologies.
“Water is key to any environmental protection or conservation problem. The suffering of people here where water is concerned is great,” he explains. “I have a growing passion to know more about water and problems, and how to solve them.”
Besides their SODIS work, KWAHO has a contract to reduce diarrhea in areas that have been hit by disasters.
“UNICEF is not associated with any particular technology. We look for technologies that work, and you’ll find that technologies that will work in one area will not work in another,” he says.
SODIS, for example, is a poor disaster relief tool because it cannot work with turbid or cloudy water. Francis concurs that this is an area of strength for the HydroPack. In fact, he tells me that the HydroPack would be his personal product of choice if he were caught in a disaster.
“For me, purity is key. I’m not one for flavors, but I am concerned about purity. Because I understand the science behind the HydroPack, I am convinced of its purity. Of course I am not worried about the flavor. The consumption rate in the pilot seems to be very high, so we are serving their hydration needs. The idea is to get hydration, and they are. If it takes flavor, so be it.”
“But another key advantage of the HydroPack is that it is its own drinking container, so the chance of recontamination is very low. This is very important in a disaster situation, where household storage practices are compromised. I would recommend it, especially for those situations that require delivery by air.”
George Agengo of the South Lake Victoria Water services Board agrees with Francis’ assessment. George performed the lab analysis on the pilot samples, and we spoke with him briefly when he dropped off the lab reports:
”I would definitely use the HydroPack in an emergency. It is very easy to use – just drop it in the water. In the floods, chlorine has difficulty in the turbid water, and there is also difficulty in calculating dosage. The dosage instructions are for 20L, but what happens if someone doesn’t have a 20L container? They will probably do it wrong by over-dosing. Then the chlorine causes other problems, as it kills the good bacteria in your gut. This can actually cause diarrhea. But the HydroPack just tastes good, and makes you want to drink more,” he said.
Waterborne diseases continue to kill thousands of children daily, and no one technology is going to solve the world’s water problems. The HydroPack cannot do the job that SODIS is doing in the Kibera slum, where cheap PET bottles and sunlight serve as a cost-effective means of providing safe water to thousands of residents there. The HydroPack is simply too expensive for daily household use. But the early results of our pilot are making a convincing case, and convincing the experts here, that for short-term emergency application the HydroPack is the emerging technology of choice.