After major global disasters, the standard advice on how to help is to give money to the big, reliable aid organizations. But small efforts that can leverage smart technology and local connections fill an important gap.
That’s the premise behind WaterStep, a Louisville, Kentucky organization with a mission around “saving lives through safe water.” A month after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, they were packing bags for more than a dozen students in engineering, communications, and dentistry at the University of Louisville would would act as couriers for delivering 60 “chlorine generator” kits.
The M-100 Chlorine Generator isn’t complicated or beautifully designed. It looks like a lot of hose and pipe connected to a device the size of a large thermos. Developed by two retired GE engineers, each device is meant to be cheap, rugged, and efficient. It can chlorinate 1,000 gallons of water an hour with a bit of table salt and a simple car battery or solar panel as a power source, and its waste products–chlorine and sodium hydroxide–can be used as disinfectants or mixed together to make a harmless saline solution.
The basic logic of water purifiers is simple. Using a power source available everywhere, such as a car battery, one device can chlorinate 10,000 gallons of water a day. “That’s 10,000 gallons today, tomorrow, the next day, and every day after for years to come,” says WaterStep’s Nathan Rider. “A shipment of bottled water by plane is 40,000 gallons today, and thousands of empty water bottles tomorrow.”
In the past, WaterStep has gone to disaster zones–in Pakistan, Haiti, and elsewhere–and installed the chlorinators themselves. This time, they trained local nonprofit workers in Cebu City, the country’s second largest metropolis, who could take the devices to hard-hit outlying areas that larger aid groups haven’t reached. “They know the people. They know the area,” says WaterStep founder and CEO Mark Hogg.
WaterStep was able to piggyback on an already-planned University of Louisville trip, and also leverage the local knowledge of Juan Afable, a Louisville sewer district employee with family in Tacloban, where the typhoon left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Chris Jenning, a reporter for Louisville’s Courier-Journal has been following WaterStep and described one installation outside Tacloban.
In Palo, a small town a few miles from central Tacloban, [Shoji] Castillo arrived to find the Catholic cathedral’s grounds covered with downed tree limbs, a small tent city and a mass grave surrounded by white ribbon. Hundreds of local residents waited for an aid truck.
Training church officials as he worked, Castillo fixed a spigot to the container, set up a dispensing station and taught the facilities manager how to maintain the chlorinator. After adding table salt and hooking up a car battery, the system had purified a drum’s worth of water in 40 minutes, producing not only clean water but effusive thanks and plans to expand the system to bigger tanks.
The main limitations of this small effort is its scale. On the first day, they trained 60 representatives of 15 organizations, but could only hand out 11 chlorinators. “We could easily give out 500 chlorinators today and still need more,” says Rider.