On a trip to India as a design student, Dutch product designer Olivier de Gruijter noticed the ubiquity of jerricans (sometimes called jerry cans), plastic or metal containers used to lug water from rivers or wells by the millions of people around the world who don’t have access to tap water at home. The water these cans are filled with is often contaminated—and separate water filters can be difficult to use. De Gruijter wondered whether it would be possible to add a small water filter directly to the can.
Jerry, the design he created in response, is a simple tap that attaches to a jerrican, filtering water each time someone pumps. “Many water filter systems are complex to maintain,” de Gruijter says, explaining that other filters often clog and have to be disassembled for cleaning. “We created a system that cleans itself automatically with every pump stroke.”
When someone pumps the can and water flows into a cup, a small amount of water simultaneously flows backward through the filter to clean it. The design also makes it easier to get water out of the can. Instead of tipping the heavy can over a glass—and potentially spilling some of the water that someone may have walked miles to collect—they can just push down on the tap.
The tap sends water through two filters, which eliminate more than 99.999% of bacteria and parasites and more than 99.9% of viruses, along with the larger particles of dirt and sand that make water look dirty. When the can is nearly empty, the pump stops working, and the contaminants that have been filtered out, along with the final dregs of water, can be dumped. The filter can clean around 10,000 liters of water before it needs to be replaced, or enough to last a family a few years. The need is clear: According to the World Health Organization, contaminated drinking water kills nearly half a million people each year, most of whom are children under the age of 5. Around 785 million people currently lack access to clean drinking water.
Because jerricans are already widely in use, the product is easier to ship than some other solutions. Instead of delivering bulky new devices, it’s possible to send only a small attachment. The filter is also designed to be self-explanatory for users. On a small trial in Ethiopia, de Gruijter handed out prototypes to families without any directions.
“People were given one of the jerrican filters without any explanation—just sort of, ‘good luck,’ to see how they work,” he says. “And each of the participants was able to install it correctly, get a glass of water, and, by doing so, maintain the filter, all within 30 seconds.”
De Gruijter’s startup, called Forthemany, is testing more prototypes in a refugee camp in Iraq. Refugees in the camp sometimes collect dirty water from a river. Even when water comes from a filter in the camp, if someone’s jerrican itself is filled with bacteria, clean water can then become contaminated as it sits in the can. Since the filter purifies the water at each use, it’s safer. In that pilot, the startup’s designers are looking for feedback from users to make final tweaks in the design.
De Gruijter hopes that Forthemany will begin selling the devices within 12 to 18 months. The filter is designed to be as affordable as possible, but because customers will be some of the poorest people in the world, the company may partner with microfinance organizations that can offer people living in poverty tiny loans to buy useful products like solar panels or water filters. In refugee camps or disaster zones, nonprofits may help foot the bill for the filters.
De Gruijter, whose company is seeking collaborators, hopes to bring the devices to 1 million people in the next five years. “The water crisis is huge,” he says. “There are so many countries below the equator, in Africa and Asia and South America, where a large part of the population does not have access to clean and safe drinking water. It is a very widespread problem.”