With 3.4 million deaths each year from waterborne disease, access to clean water is one of the globe’s most pervasive problems. It’s also one of the most difficult to resolve. Not only are the sources of water contamination varied, most of the people consuming the water don’t even know their water is unsafe.
To create awareness around this problem, and to save lives in the process, charity group Water Is Life turned to cutting-edge technology for a solution. But this isn’t your usual high-cost, inaccessible technology. Instead, WIL, along with agency DDB NY, created The Drinkable Book, a book whose pages both educate people about water safety and also function as low-cost water filters.
“One of Water Is Life’s biggest challenges (beyond providing clean water) is education,” says Brian Gartside, graphic designer at DDB NY. “Simply put, in many of the areas most affected by unsafe drinking water, the general population isn’t aware of what is causing the problems, or what they can do to solve them. It’s a huge task. The goal of the book is to provide a single clean water manual that attacks the issue from both sides (education and purification).”
The pages of The Drinkable Book are made with silver nanoparticle-coated paper that filters 99.9% of bacteria, such as cholera, E. coli and typhoid from contaminated water. Invented by Carnegie Mellon researcher Dr. Theresa Dankovich, the paper costs pennies to produce per page. When someone receives the book, they tear out a filter, place it in the filter box that encases the book, and pour water through.
Gartside says making the book dual-purpose was important because transporting supplies to remote areas can be challenging. “Consolidating educational materials within advanced water purification technology in one easily transportable package was very important from the beginning, and was a big ask,” he says. But worth it: each filter can give someone 30 days of clean water and each book provides four years of clean water.
Here Gartside explains the process of how turning a newly invented paper into a book that has the potential to save lives.
In doing research, I came across Dr. Theresa (Teri) Dankovich’s work and instantly knew that this was the solution that we needed. We introduced her to the client and once everyone was satisfied with the research (that the paper actually works), we begun to move forward with the project. This was about a year ago. We went through several iterations on how to present the information, but ultimately went with a book. The reason for that is portability. One of the biggest advantages to this filter paper is its portability. A lot of filter systems are heavy/immobile. The real strength of this technology, beyond its low cost and high effectiveness, is how portable it is. This makes it a perfect solution for remote areas affected by unsafe water, or for areas struck by natural disasters. The book format is an easy way for a single individual to be able to easily carry a large amount of these filters.
The process of designing the book itself was unlike anything I’ve done before, simply because of all the variables that were beyond our control. When we got our first sample of the paper from Teri, we saw immediately that the beautiful orange color of the paper was going to be dominant in the overall look of the book. The color comes from the process of adding the silver nanoparticles, and is actually an indicator that the chemical reactions have taken place. The paper starts off pure white before Teri does her treatment, and ends up a bright yellow afterwards, which gradually transitions to the deep golden color of the finished books.
Another big consideration we had to make was the ink that we printed the book with. Most commercial printing inks are either petroleum or rubber based, and contain nasty chemicals that you really wouldn’t want to ingest. Even modern soy based inks are often only 20% soy, and aren’t something we’d want people drinking. We eventually found a vendor who was willing to create food-grade ink–the same kind of stuff you’d find on the inside of food packaging–specifically for letterpress. We went with a silver as a nod to the nanoparticles that make the paper work. The reason we printed on letterpress is because people need to be able to be sure that these booksaren’t contaminated, so we wanted to control as much of the process as we could. Since we weren’t printing 10,000 books to start, letterpress was the best option that allowed us the level of control that we needed.
As far as the layout of the book goes, it’s pretty straightforward. It had to be. Each page is pre-perforated into two 4.5×4.5″ filters, each capable of filtering 100 liters of water (one month of water for an adult male). The upper filter on every page is printed in English. The bottom filter on each page is printed in the locally spoken language for the area. We made the decision to make the book bilingual because most of Water Is Life’s volunteers are native English-speakers. English also happens to be one of the world’s most commonly spoken languages, which makes it useful to include. The page that describes how to use the filters also includes pictograms, in an effort to reduce confusion.
We started off with a short run of books, produced bilingually in Swahili and English for use in Kenya. Depending on how well the books are received by the local population (that testing is ongoing), we will be making any necessary adjustments before translating/rolling the book out for other areas. Currently we have produced approximately 70 books. Water Is Life plans to work with Dr Dankovich over the coming year to scale up and mass produce the project by 2015. Water Is Life works in 33 countries around the world. The ultimate goal of this project is to have a translated version of the book for each of these areas. It’s a very feasible solution because Water Is Life is a huge proponent of putting boots on the ground in the countries where they work, which is part of why we’re so excited about this project. The filters are capable of filtering a lot of water, and even at the low levels we’re currently producing them, they’re cheap to make. Once production is fully scaled up, it will only become more cost-effective as a solution, which is great because we’re getting hundreds of requests for books from all over the world, and quite frankly the media attention that the book has gotten is going to go a long way towards mass producing the filter paper and actually saving lives.