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Can This New Backpack Solve The World's Water Woes?

A new, cheap backpack made by Greif is designed to carry water more comfortably than in a jug on your head. More importantly, it’s not made from some cast-off container that used to be full of poison or industrial waste.

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You may not have heard of Greif, but you’re probably familiar with its products. One of the largest industrial packaging companies in the world, Greif makes plastic drums, fiber drums, water bottles for water coolers, steel containers, and more. The companies that buy certain Greif products—like the drums that hold hazardous chemicals—are the same ones that may inadvertently poison people in the developing world who use those containers to transport water after they’ve been thrown out. And so it makes a certain kind of sense that Greif would step up to create a solution, dubbed WaterWear, that allows people to safely and easily carry gallons of clean water.

David Fischer, the CEO of Greif, is a late-stage cancer survivor who has worked in the chemical industry. He knows about the dangers of using contaminated products. "These containers used [to transport water] oftentimes have been used with paint, fuels, pesticides. Being from a packaging company, I know those packages with tight-knit enclosures on top are impossible to get clean." It doesn’t matter how many clean water solutions are brought to the developing world; if the containers used to carry that water are dirty, it’s all for naught.

Greif, a member of the Clinton Global Initiative’s water action group, set out to find a solution that would both keep water clean and ensure that people don’t have to carry water in containers on their head (the traditional style in many places).

After spending the last year looking for solutions, Greif and Impact Economics came up with the WaterWear pack—a backpack that the company is calling "the first for purpose designed water transport product that is economically viable for developing economies and disaster relief conditions." Like camping and hiking backpacks, the WaterWear pack takes the load off the upper portion of the back and onto the lumbar and pelvis region, where humans can safely carry more weight. The collapsible pack can carry up to five gallons of water—the upper limit of what people usually carry on their heads—and costs just $5.50 to $6 to distribute for disaster relief.

So far, 2,000 WaterWear packs have been distributed to four different communities in Haiti. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. When Fischer asked one woman with the pack what people say to her when she shows up at the well using it, she responded that "everybody wants one, everybody wants to buy hers, and everybody wants to trade for hers." Another woman broke down in tears when she tried the pack for the first time, saying that this was "the nicest thing she’s ever known and that anyone has ever given her," according to Fischer.

Next up: distributing 1,000 of the packs in Guatemala, where local women will sell them under the guidance of an NGO.

There are other water carrying solutions for the developing world, of course. The Hippo Roller, a device that allows people to roll a large drum filled with 24 gallons of water on the ground, is perhaps the most famous. But Fischer believes that it’s best suited to flat surfaces. "If there’s any incline or decline in that you have either a task that a human can’t perform or on a downhill you have a dangerous situation where the thing can get away from you," he says. And while Hippo Roller’s creators are working on a solution to let locals build the devices, at the moment they’re more complicated to ship than a simple collapsible backpack.

Fischer has high hopes for future distribution of the packs. He envisions distributing 100 million backpacks in the next five years through NGO partners. Ambitious? Sure. But that would impact just a small percentage of people who lack easy access to clean water. There’s no choice but to be ambitious.