If you live in Bangladesh, you have a 1 in 5 chance of dying from chronic arsenic poisoning. In a misguided attempt to provide fresh drinking water in the 1970s, aid agencies dug wells across the entire country, accidentally exposing millions of people to dangerously high levels of the poison that happen to occur naturally in local soil. Now a social enterprise called PurifAid hopes to help with a technology inspired by Scotch whisky.
The idea, called a “DRAM,” was originally created by a Scottish researcher who discovered that by mixing a byproduct of the whisky-making process with a secret ingredient, she could clean pollutants from water. The technique is now in use in the U.K. to clean water at industrial facilities.
In Bangladesh, it would have to be scaled down to fit in village wells, and the whisky byproduct will be replaced by locally-available materials like coconut shells and rice husks.
The most common water filter in Bangladesh now, a two-bucket system filled with gravel and mortar, which drips out water slowly and has to be cleaned often, isn't easy to use. The DRAM promises simplification: Instead of keeping a filter at home, the DRAM unit will be installed directly in a well. Within five minutes, it can remove 95% of the arsenic from the water, along with other pollutants.
It’s also cheaper than alternatives, since the coconut shells and rice husks used in the filter would have ended up as waste anyway. Each filter cartridge lasts four to six months, and when it’s popped out of the top of a well, it can be used as biofuel. Little other maintenance is needed, and everything runs on gravity, so no electricity is required.
“We’re trying to use materials that are so inexpensive that villagers can afford to buy the system,” says Shahreen Reza, CEO of PurifAid. “The whole purpose of PurifAid is to have a social enterprise, because what’s happened with charities and NGOs in Bangladesh is that they create a vicious cycle of dependency where you give things for free and then it either ruins the local economy or villagers don’t have a high upkeep.”
PurifAid plans to sell the systems to local entrepreneurs who will sell the water themselves, so it becomes a community-driven project. “When it comes to having villagers own and adopt the technology, it’s always better if the system becomes a venture that they could then have a profit from and run as their own business,” Reza explains.
In April, the team will be going to Bangladesh to test the system. One part of the team will work on the technology itself, trying to improve on the 95% filtration rate. Another part of the team will focus on the business model and education. “One of the reasons the WHO calls this the ‘largest mass poisoning in history’ is that people aren’t aware of it, and we want to push the education angle,” Reza says.
Eventually, PurifAid hopes to expand to China, Vietnam, and parts of Africa that also struggle with arsenic contamination. “We’re looking at Bangladesh as a case study,” Reza says. “Arsenic is a huge catastrophe globally.”