2012-04-20

Co.Exist

Better Than Brita: An Industrial Strength Home Water Filter

Developing countries don’t always have the infrastructure or resources to ensure their entire water supply is drinkable. One company is making it so they don’t have to.

Fresh water is a scarce resource and is growing scarcer every year. Yet despite its value, current methods for water delivery are insanely inefficient and impractical. While developed nations act as if they have more clean water than they know what to do with, developing countries often have a difficult time getting any drinkable water into residents’ houses. One solution that’s getting some buzz: A cheap, in-home water filter that only cleans the water you’re about to use.

Traditionally, a huge amount of money and infrastructure have been used for cleaning fresh water and distributing it. But as much as half that water can be lost en route through leaky pipes. In fact, although 80% of a water treatment plant’s costs go to make the water drinkable, only 2% of that water ends up anywhere near our mouths. The rest goes down toilets, into washing machines, or out the garden hose. In developing countries the situation can feel even more futile. Sanitation pipes often run alongside the water pipes--as fresh water leaks out, sanitation leaks in.

Fresh water is so valuable that many have estimated its investment potential to be more than $500 billion, with some predicting it will grow to $1 trillion by 2020. Hoping to capitalize on the opportunity while making a difference to some of the places that most need it, investment strategist Kevin McGovern founded The Water Initiative. Rather than spending vast amounts of money and chemicals to clean water that would only get dirty before it hit people’s taps, he thought, why not filter it right at the tap itself? After all, the closer to people’s mouths water was filtered, the less likely they’d be to contract waterborne diseases.

McGovern brought together materials science researchers and water experts from around the world to create “point-of-use” filters that remove the biggest health threats (such as pathogens, arsenic, fluoride, and other chemicals). The result is a freestanding water cooler that looks just like the kind in your home or office break room, and that can be hooked up to a kitchen tap or other supply pipe to provide quality water when and where it’s needed.

With the cooperation of Mexico’s national water commission, the company studied 20 different communities and has rolled out a distribution network that employs local residents. The country was so impressed that they installed the filters in government buildings across Mexico, and subsidized the units, purchasing them in bulk, for use in the neediest areas of the country. Previously, residents in areas with unpotable water had to pick up large carboys of drinking water a few times a week and drag them home. For about the same cost as the carboys and far less effort, they can now get a “Watercura” filtration cooler.

The Water Initiative has been working with home and community developers to install the filters in hospitals and schools, and has employed hundreds of micro-entrepreneurs to sell the filters directly to consumers. Now, after their success in Mexico, the company is looking to move into the rest of Latin America and have recently started operations in Saudi Arabia.

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