My view of the world’s drinking water needs

March 23, 2020

by Paul Berg
The world recently passed a unique threshold. In all of humankind’s history, the majority of people lived in rural settings. That is, until 2016 when the urban population surpassed the rural population.

Mirroring that shift, my appreciation for the pressing needs in the developing world has changed. My first African water project was arranging for repairs to hand pumps for village boreholes; rural needs seemed the priority. These rural needs remain. However, the greatest safe drinking water challenges are in cities of the developing world.

I recently led a top-down analysis of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s drinking water infrastructure for the US Millennium Challenge Corporation—the system is woefully inadequate and falling further behind every year. In projects for facilities in Lusaka (Zambia), Kampala (Uganda), Beni (Democratic Republic of the Congo), and others, I’ve seen and heard stories from many individuals searching for the best way to provide safe drinking water for their families. Even from taps, whether in homes or at community stands as in the picture above, the water isn’t dependably clean. In the end, many resort to boiling to make their water safe to drink. For over 600 million people around the world, boiling water is a daily task. The picture at right shows the most commonly used fuel: charcoal.

Boiling is slow and messy (think of handling charcoal for your backyard BBQ), and the open fires are responsible for many burns, especially for children. the use of cookstoves contributes to deforestation and carbon emissions. Everywhere I’ve traveled in Africa, whether rural or urban, boiling water over charcoal fires is the predominant method of ensuring safe drinking water.

With this problem in mind, I began to develop the idea of a small container that could hold water while it was being disinfected by light from a UV bulb, a commonly used water treatment technology in the developed world. If the bulb could be powered by hand, it would preclude the need for electricity, which was undependable at best in many African cities. I realized that I could attach a hand crank to the bulb, and by turning the crank for 30-60 seconds, generate the necessary power to clean the water in the tank. This was the inception of the DayZero Water Box. It packages a known water treatment technology in a convenient, inexpensive product.

In the years since, the Box has gone through numerous prototypes and improvements. We realized it could not only help provide clean drinking water in third world countries, but also be useful in disaster situations when cities tell their customers to boil water. The disaster response need is important, but the need that pushes me is the daily need experienced by so many in the developing world who have few good options.

There are alternatives on the market. There are filtration and disinfection methods, but these have not received widespread uptake. This is why people continue to boil their water. More than half a billion people would not use boiling if convenient, inexpensive, desirable alternatives were available.

New products are needed, not just for convenience or even to reduce the carbon footprint. They are needed to save lives. The photo of the three boys reminds us of how. When you boil your water and it runs out during the day, children will find someplace to get a drink. These boys found a “spring,” really just a drainage ditch, to fill their water bottles. Was this in a remote village? No, again, this reflects urban life. This scene was a mere 100 meters from our Kampala apartment.

We sense our vulnerability from infectious disease, including waterborne disease. But what if your daily defense was boiling water over charcoal? Let’s bring a better solution to market.