Mobile Water Purification: Cleaning Water, Saving Lives

Access to clean drinking water is fundamental to human existence. But what happens if the existing infrastructure is damaged or destroyed? Rowan Watt-Pringle investigates the use of mobile water purification systems to provide safe, clean drinking water in the event of natural disasters.

During his opening speech at the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting in September, former US President Bill Clinton emphasised the critical importance of providing safe drinking water to victims of the floods that devastated Pakistan in mid-2010.

"Access to clean water is severely limited and Pakistan is facing a public health emergency of drastic proportions," Clinton said. "Whenever you have anything like this, the first thing you have to worry about is waterborne illnesses. Outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea – and when people start dying almost all of them will be six years old or younger."

Mobile MaxPure: self-contained disaster management

The Mobile MaxPure (MMP) unit from WorldWater and Solar Technologies (WorldWater) is at the forefront of the mobile water purification field, also providing renewable power and even communications capabilities.

Highlighted as a problem of such significance by former President Clinton in his opening remarks, the Mobile MaxPure has the solution in the capability to provide a reliable, sustainable and immediate source of clean water, power and communications in disaster relief situations, development, humanitarian aid and remote operations.

"The MMP units can both purify contaminated freshwater and desalinate brackish and seawater."

"The MMP unit offers some distinct advantages when it comes to emergency safe water provision in the wake of a natural disaster," asserts Melissa Burns, Vice-President of Marketing & Project Management at WorldWater.

In fact, Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for the creation of the MMP. "At WorldWater we began trying to come up with innovative ways to help in the relief efforts, which culminated in the creation of the current MMP unit," explains Burns.

"Not only was the MMP the first ever solar-powered water pumping and purification system, enabling deployment in remote areas, but it can be set up in just half an hour to provide a three-way utility infrastructure to support damaged power and communications grids," she continues.

The MMP units can both purify contaminated freshwater and desalinate brackish and seawater using reverse osmosis, while according to Burns they are also highly cost-effective. "When compared to an average cost of US$1/gallon (about 15p/litre) to supply bottled water to disaster victims, the payback on an MMP unit is less than a week," she points out.

"The unit allows for the provision of 30,000 gallons of safe drinking water every day for less than US$0.01 per gallon. Meanwhile, on-site logistics are minimal thanks to the sustainable, on-site delivery of clean water and reliable energy, eliminating the need for fuel supplies and other logistics and expenses," Burns continues.

The estimated lifespan of these systems is 25 years, so beyond the immediate disaster they become the infrastructure for water and power for years to come. "The MMPs are very rugged and 60 units have been field-proven in a variety of harsh environments, from Haiti, Pakistan and Darfur to Iraq and Afghanistan. The MMP is well-suited for operation anywhere traditional infrastructure is compromised, unreliable or non-existent," says Burns.

Showering praise

The system has earned glowing endorsements across the board for its aid in several natural disasters in recent years, from the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2003 to Red Cross efforts following the earthquake in Haiti at the start of this year.

After hurricanes ravaged Haiti in 2008, WorldWater provided two MMP water purification units to the relief efforts. Because the storms had made the road network impassable, transportation of goods was virtually impossible, but the MMP is designed as a completely self-contained system that can be transported by air, water or land.

Following this year's earthquake, WorldWater was again involved in relief efforts in Haiti, earning high praise from French Red Cross Delegation Chief Florent Del Pinto: "We are extremely grateful and appreciate what you have done for us to come to the aid of families cared for by the French Red Cross … particularly for the Mobile MaxPure water treatment unit that you put at our disposal."

In another letter of thanks, Alan H. Morrell, Director of the Morrell Foundation, lavished praise on WorldWater for its relief work, in conjunction with the Foundation following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This included the donation of an MMP unit, which, he wrote, "operated flawlessly for the seven months it was deployed in Waveland."

"During this time, all potable water for the thousands of people at our relief camp came from this unit," Morrell continued. "The Mobile MaxPure never let us down. It met or exceeded all advertised performance expectations."

The SureAquaStraw: safe water from any faucet

There are a number of different water purification technologies on the market, with innovative approaches to mobility and cost-effectiveness leading to exciting developments in the field.

"Following this year's earthquake, WorldWater was again involved in relief efforts in Haiti."

One such invention is the SureAquaStraw mobile water filtration straw.

Designed primarily for personal use rather than emergency water provision, the straw filters 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria through a micro-porous membrane inside a sturdy outer casing.

This cheap, chemical-free option helps the environment by providing an alternative to resource and energy-wasteful bottled water in countries without potable tap water.

First Water Systems

First Water Systems is another major supplier of mobile water purification products, offering both solar and electric power capability.

Treatment consists of a two-stage filtration process followed by ultraviolet (UV) light disinfection, while the company's Flex-Chlorinator changes household bleach products into chlorine for additional disinfecting of purified water. This residual disinfection is an optional addition for the entire product range.

The Responder-S unit offers maximum flexibility and mobility, running on a combination of solar, onboard 12-V battery, A/C or D/C power. The size of a briefcase and weighing just 20kg, the Responder-S can produce as much as 250l of purified water per hour.

First Water's semi-portable Outpost-4 unit runs solely on solar power and is another ideal option for emergency water provision, as it is able to produce enough clean water for up to 1,000 people every day, while the A/C powered Outpost-12 boasts several times this capacity.

Research into natural water purification methods

"First Water Systems is another major supplier of mobile water purification products."

In South Africa where large semi-arid regions prone to drought are abundant University of Stellenbosch scientists had developed a cheap, biodegradable water filtration "teabag". Made of nano-fibres and coated on the inside with biocides to kill diseases in the water, each bag is filled with active carbon granules and can purify one litre of water.

Scheduled for commercial production by the end of 2010, the teabags are currently being tested by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). They could go a long way towards simplifying emergency water purification efforts via the on-site use of the teabags.

This effectively negates the logistics involved in transporting heavier, larger treatment units or already-purified water onto the scene of a natural disaster.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, meanwhile, scientists at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo are busily researching a variety of simple and cost-effective ways to treat contaminated water.

Tests into the use of powdered seeds from the Moringa Oleifera tree last year were positively reported by IPS News as effectively reducing waterborne illnesses and correcting pH levels, while sand filtration columns represent another cheap method of filtration.