Millions of people lack access to safe water—and some don’t have water at all. When wells and lakes dry up, or natural disaster strikes, they are forced to rely on truck deliveries, or air-drops.
Ben Cohen watched the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and wondered if there was another way to get supplies to people. "They had water, but not an efficient way of getting it to people," he says. "Pipelines are the most efficient method of getting fluids to people, so we thought 'how can we rapidly install a pipeline?'"
The solution Cohen came up with is a spooling machine that dangles from the bottom of a helicopter. His company, Tohl can install one kilometer (0.6 miles) of water-bearing pipe in nine minutes, or up to five kilometers on a single run.
He can deliver water more or less anywhere, and at a fraction of the cost of trucking or drops. "It’s independent of the local infrastructure, and it’s versatile, because we use these long spooled segments, which is key," he says.
To pursue his idea, Cohen gave up his job at Georgia’s Department of Transportation, and traveled down to Chile, where his friend Travis Horsley was working as a missionary. They set up Tohl together and now work out of offices of Socialab, a Santiago incubator.
Cohen estimates that a pipeline could be 30 to 50 times cheaper than an airdrop of water bottles, depending on the distance the helicopter has to travel. As for trucking, he reckons a village of 32 houses in Chile might spend $8,000 a month for weekly deliveries—or $96,000 a year. Tohl can install a pipeline for $120,000, and it will last more than 20 years, he says, and require little maintenance (this assumes there is an available water source within pitching distance).
Tohl is about to start work on a project for a small village in San José de Maipo, about one and a half hours from Santiago. Forty-six families have water for only part of the year, and Cohen and his team will hook in a stream 2.5 kilometers away.
Other possible projects include one in Haiti—which is still horribly short of safe water. "There’s a village in Haiti with 98,000 people, where 60 people a day are dying of cholera," he says. "Part of that is that the water is not sanitized, but also that they don’t have water to sanitize. It’s really an ongoing emergency situation down there."