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Thirst Aid

From the March/April 2008 Issue

Three entrepreneurs are hoping to combat the world’s worst environmental and humanitarian crisis.

Of the myriad problems Hurricane Katrina victims faced, among the most tragic was a lack of drinking water. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so sad. After all, people were surrounded by a rising tide of H2O and yet unable to slake their thirst. The problem was, despite this grotesque overabundance of water, it was all polluted, so none of it was potable. 

For a country that has clean drinking water flowing out of every household tap, the sight of Americans thirsty to the point of distress is a rare one indeed. But for hundreds of millions of people around the world, lack of reliable drinking water is the norm. It’s an enormous environmental and humanitarian problem, killing as many as two million people a year. Disasters can trigger an entrepreneurial response, however. And a handful of technologists have been developing products to get safe drinking water to those in need. With names such as LifeSaver, LifeStraw, and LifePack, you get a sense of their aims. 

Most of the technologies are variations on a theme—water filtration in a portable device. For example, LifeStraw is a pale-blue, handheld tube that looks like a track-and-field relay baton. It has a small opening at the top to sip through and a larger opening at the bottom for the water intake. The tube contains seven filters that remove impurities in the water. You can wade into Lake Pontchartrain or the Ganges River, bend over, and with LifeStraw drink your fill.

Vestergaard Frandsen, a Danish company now headquartered in Switzerland, developed the device. The firm was founded half a century ago to manufacture conventional textiles. But in recent years its CEO, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, grandson of the company’s founder, shifted the business focus to developing textile-based products that fight disease. 

Today, the firm is split into two divisions. The larger one makes textiles that combat disease-carrying bugs (the company is one of the biggest manufacturers of antimalarial mosquito bed nets). The smaller division is their three-year old water business that makes LifeStraw. 

Still other clean-water technologies come from Bob Salter, an Oregon-based entrepreneur. Early in his career he focused on large-scale industrial water filtration, but over time he adapted to changing market and regulatory conditions. Today he develops individualized water treatment products. 

With LifeStraw, you can wade into Lake Pontchartrain or the Ganges River, bend over, and drink your fill.

His firm, Hydration Technologies, is located near Portland. It manufactures a product called SeaPack, an emergency-use filtration system that makes seawater drinkable by sifting out the salt. Just pour the brackish water in and sip through the straw like a Capri Sun. 

Another approach comes from British entrepreneur Michael Pritchard. Pritchard was originally motivated to develop a potable-water technology after viewing media coverage of the devastation from the 2004 Asian tsunami—another instance where people were surrounded by water but had not a drop to drink. 

Pritchard notes that the emergency response included efforts to ship bottled water to victims. “But why are we shipping people water” he asks, when they are surrounded by the stuff? “Shipping bottled water to disaster areas is expensive and difficult.” So Pritchard developed LifeSaver, a hard plastic water bottle with a miniaturized filtration plant inside. 

What is the market for products such as these? It’s difficult to say. They could be useful in disaster areas, so aid agencies could be natural buyers. But disasters are by definition difficult to predict, and businesses are harder to sustain on unpredictable demand. 

There is interest from military buyers. Salter tells me SeaPack was adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard to put in aircraft and life rafts, and says that the British Royal Air Force is also procuring the product. Pritchard has demonstrated LifeSaver at a few major international water trade shows and claims it has attracted serious interest. He says the British military has purchased test units. 

But the most important market is an enormous (albeit poor) one—the large slice of the planet that is in something of a perpetual disaster state. The United Nations agency for water resources claims that “a child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one in the developing world.” So while an American will most likely never go without access to drinking water in his or her lifetime, developing-world residents are far less fortunate. It is in these places of need that water-filtration technologies may do the most good. 

A few years ago the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg gathered several prominent economists, including Nobel Prize winners such as Robert Fogel and Douglass North, in an effort to prioritize global crises and potential solutions. They developed a cost-benefit t analysis to help policymakers know in what ways they could help the most people. 

The results challenged conventional views. For example, despite how much media attention the global warming issue gets, the “Copenhagen Consensus” scholars pegged climate change in last place on the list. Water-related projects, however, scored relatively high in priority. 

“At any given time, close to half the population in the developing world [is] suffering from one or more diseases associated with inadequate provision of water and sanitation services,” the Copenhagen scholars reported. In other words, the water crisis is unambiguous, it’s happening right now, and it harms millions. How much of a dent the new clean-water technologies can make toward ameliorating such a large-scale problem is anybody’s guess. Bureaucratic obstacles slow the development of the market. 

To give just one small example, LifeStraw cannot be marketed and sold in the United States until the Food and Drug Administration approves the product. It is unclear if and when this will happen. The holdup limits awareness of the product and restricts experimentation with it. This explains in part why, despite many critical rave reviews, only 100,000 units of LifeStraw have been shipped so far, according to the company. 

The anticorporate critic Naomi Klein recently published a book-length attack on private firms that conduct business in crisis areas, dubbing their work a form of “disaster capitalism.” But the efforts of water-technology firms suggest that Klein’s critique is cynical and churlish. There’s little doubt that these entrepreneurs are hoping to harness the power of technology and markets to improve—indeed to save—people’s lives. 

Nick Schulz is the editor-in-chief of THE AMERICAN.

Photo courtesy of LifeStraw/Vestergaard Frandsen.

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