Deep in the Amazonian forest, a seven hour drive away from the city of Tefe in Northern Brazil, the small community of Deus é Pai struggles to get access to clean water. Tabita, a microscopist in charge of monitoring malaria at the local health centre and a midwife for the region, has made improving water security her mission. She’s one of the community leaders testing a Geneva-born technology that produces chlorine from water and salt.
No bigger than a cup, the nano WATA device is the Geneva-based Antenna Foundation’s latest addition to their wide range of electrolysers. Developed 15 years ago, the trade-marked technology has been tapped by the Solar Impulse Foundation as one of 1,000 eco-friendly solutions to sustainability challenges.
It works by running an electric current through salt water, producing active chlorine. One litre of the resulting chlorine can treat 3,300 litres of drinking water or can be used in higher concentrations to disinfect surfaces and objects, according to the organisation.
When water isn’t treated
Water scarcity is far from being the only obstacle to people being able to access clean drinking water. In many cases, the water is there but it isn’t safe to drink or use. Globally close to two billion people are still drinking contaminated water, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). People in rural areas and in conflict-ridden countries, such as Syria, where water infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged, bear the brunt.
Read also: War or peace? In Syra, water flows both ways
When water isn’t treated, bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms present in the water can cause diseases, such as cholera or diarrhea. The WHO estimates that roughly 485,000 people die every year from diarrhea.
As the world’s most common disinfectant, active chlorine has played a key role in eradicating deadly waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Research has also shown its effectiveness against Covid-19, which has laid bare the urgent need to improve access to safe water and sanitation to halt the spread of such diseases.
From salt water to clean water
Antenna’s latest nano model aims to bring water treatment to a more local level, targeting communities in remote rural areas that lack basic services. The device can be used to provide water in small health centres, schools as well as single households, in places where inhabitants can’t just easily go to a supermarket and buy chlorine tablets or disinfectant.
“The advantage of our system is that you can produce it locally and can be autonomous,” Mariana Veauvy, general coordinator and new technologies manager at Antenna Foundation, tells Geneva Solutions.
In Tabita’s home region, 85 per cent of the population doesn’t have access to clean water, according to a survey by the public Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, conducted on 16,000 people from 330 rural communities in the Mamirauá and Amanã reserves.
Communities like Deus é Pai get their water from wells or from the rain, however, there is no collective water treating system. “The traditional water treatment here in the region are cloth filters,” Maria Cecilia Gomes, coordinator of the quality of life programme at the Mamiraua Institute, tells Geneva Solutions.
People also use chlorine solutions, distributed by the government every month as part of their health plan, but Cecilia warns that it is “unregulated and distribution varies”. The Tefe-based Institute, who selected Tabita, is trying out the Wata technology for the first time.
“This technology will bring the possibility of water treatment and to clean spaces and surfaces in households and health facilities,” Gomes says.
In 20 minutes, the device can produce enough active chlorine to treat 320 litres of water or 0.6 litres of disinfectant. It comes with a USB charger or can also be powered by solar power, a feature that can prove useful in places like Deus é Pai, where the community only gets electricity at night-time.
Still in the test phase, around 20 prototypes have been sent to different countries including Brazil, Cameroon, Nepal and Tanzania. “We know the device works but we want to know more about how people use it, how frequently they use it and how they envisage it could be most useful,” Veauvy says, noting that they have already received positive feedback from Nepal and Cameroon. The foundation hopes to be ready for launch next year.
Boom in innovation for water treatment
In recent years, innovation for water treatment has been soaring. As newer technologies emerge and governments and NGOs are approached by their developers to buy them, knowing if they are effective has become an issue.
To help these actors choose wisely, the WHO set up in 2015 an evaluation scheme to rate the performance of household water treatment technologies in removing microbial contaminants.“The questions that we were getting before we set up the scheme was, ‘how do we know what technology works? How do we know whether it's actually doing the job that it's supposed to do in terms of treating water?’” Batsirai Majuru, technical officer with the WHO’s water, sanitation, hygiene and health, explains to Geneva Solutions.
Up to date, the health agency has evaluated 48 technologies, ranging from ceramic filters, membrane filters to UV solar disinfection, and has approved 36 of them. Devices that meet the criteria are rated with one to three stars, depending on their capacity to eliminate bacteria, viruses or protozoa. They must remove at least two out of the three to meet the minimum requirements and be rated with one star.
This is the case for the WATA chlorine, which removes viruses and bacteria, according to the WHO’s evaluation.
“For governments procuring the technology, it means that they need to be applying it in the context where there is some knowledge that the contaminant of concern is either bacteria or viruses,” Majuru notes.
These technologies, which the WHO classifies as targeted protection, should be complemented by other treatment steps, such as boiling water, to eliminate other pathogens, she adds.
As new technologies emerge, the way in which they are developed and applied is also shifting. “In the past, there was always the thinking that if you have any emergency, whether it's a flood or drought or whatever is going on, chlorine is a default solution,” she says.
“But now that we are publishing these results and highlighting that chlorine is effective in these specific situations and against these specific microbes, we're seeing a shift in thinking towards including other technologies that will also be effective against protozoa, for instance.”
Solutions are starting to be marketed for other institutional settings such as health care facilities and schools. More complex technologies are also being developed for example atmospheric water generators, which essentially extract water from the air.
One piece of the puzzle
For all the potential technological innovation presents, it is only one of the components to addressing water security challenges, Majuru warns.
“You can have technology, but if you don't have, for instance, the finances to access the technology or if there is no acceptance by the target user population, nothing will happen,” she says.
Antenna’s team echoes Majuru’s point on these two challenges and is still working out the details of the funding scheme. “The Antenna Foundation is funding the research, production and field test at this stage,” says Raphael Graser, head of Antenna’s water and hygiene unit.
To kick off their testing phase, the foundation launched a call to the 3D printing community for parts and received around 250 samples.
Looking further into the future, the organisation is looking at several funding options such as selling the device at a higher price in developed countries to subsidise the product in the developing world. People in Europe have shown interest in the device, Veauvy says. “Instead of buying bleach in the supermarket to clean your toilet, for instance, you could produce your own disinfectant.”
Another possibility would be to use instalment-based payments to help low-income buyers bear the cost.
In Brazil, Gomes observes that one of the main challenges is awareness and trust from the population. Her institute has observed with worry that inhabitants are not using the chlorine solutions to clean the water as they say they are.
“We believe Tabita is a very good candidate for this. She has been organising health workshops here in the region, and we believe she will be able to [teach] people about the correct use of chlorine,” she says.
There are also other types of pollution that WATA and other similar technologies cannot root out. Pesticides, heavy metals and microplastics, for instance, require more sophisticated technology that is usually more expensive.
While the health impacts are not as visible as those from microbial contaminants, chemicals that pile up in the organ system can have deadly consequences.
But technology is not the only way to prevent water-related health hazards. “Treatment is always more difficult than the actual prevention,” Majuru says.
“We work with governments to make sure that they have, for example, zoning laws. That means that you can't have the industries that might be emitting some of these pollutants close to the water sources.”
Having regulations in place to know what pollutants are present is also key. Too often, the rulebook is there but the implementation is lacking, she adds.
“The GLAAS report from 2019 very clearly shows that a lot of countries do have policies for water and sanitation, but when it comes to the implementation of those policies, there are significant gaps,” she says, citing lack of budgets and human resources to oversee the safety of drinking water sources outside urban areas.
The dire situation leads Veauvy to see her foundation’s product as a permanent solution for people in isolated areas. “When you know the numbers of people needing drinkable water, I don’t think governments will make sure that everybody has a clean cup of water [anytime soon].”