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Water Treatment in Developing Nations: When Leapfrogging Technology Doesn't Work

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Visit any third-world country and you may be surprised at the number of cell phones you see. Children play their favorite ring tones and locals are eager to exchange cell phone numbers to keep in touch. With cell phones so pervasive in our society and getting smarter by the day, it's hard to believe that Nokia's first mobile phone (if you can even call it that) was introduced in 1982. Over these last 30 years coverage has expanded and progressed to the point that 91 percent of Americans use cell phones. As technology has become more affordable and the trials and tribulations of developing a cellular infrastructure have already been worked out, this technology has been able to be easily ported to developing countries. Why put up land lines in remote areas when a cell tower can quickly and easily be put in place?

Leapfrogging has allowed developing companies to skip inferior and less efficient iterations of a technology to a more advanced version. While citizens of developing countries aren't likely to be surfing the Web on a 4G iPhone, their level of access to this technology would have been unfathomable 15 years ago and mobile phone networks are more reliable and advanced in these areas than many of these country's physical infrastructures. While cell phone adoption is one of several examples of leapfrogging, as have been solar energy technology and public Wi-Fi, not all of the advances of the first-world can be easily passed to the developing world. One of the most glaring examples is municipal water treatment.

From the first-world where clean water is only a turn of the tap away, it is hard to believe that 884 million people lack access to a clean water source. The United Nations has committed to achieving its Millennium Development Goals by 2015, a list of eight international development goals created ranging from eradicating extreme poverty and hunger to ensuring environmental sustainability. A tenet of ensuring environmental sustainability was to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. To attempt to bring water treatment technology to developing areas, some first-world countries and companies have attempted to deliver the advanced out-of-the-box package water treatment plants that these countries for the most part use themselves. Big picture engineering is completely disregarded when this is done. While these solutions attempt to address the needs of the community, they are not designed with the community in mind.

In many developing countries, over 20 percent of the adult population is illiterate and many residents of low income countries do not even complete primary education, with more than 115 million 6- to 12-year olds not in school in the developing world, although these numbers are improving. For many of these package treatment plants, the level of education of the operators is not sufficient enough and proper training is not or cannot be provided to the operators. Coupled with intermittent electricity (these plants require huge amounts of electricity in areas that have unreliable power grids), non-local parts and materials (imagine being in Honduras and having a several million dollar plant gifted from Spain have to go offline or run at limited capacity for two months because a motor broke and the part needed to be shipped from Spain), these developing countries may be the proud owners of several million dollars of junk.

In cases like this, the solution to the problem cannot be solved by the advances in technology that developed countries have implemented at home. These solutions must be engineered for the specific area they are to be utilized. Leapfrogging fails when infrastructure requirements do not allow for the technology to be operated efficiently. So how are we going to achieve these development goals in rural and remote areas? First, the residents of developing countries need to be able to understand the construction, operation and maintenance of their systems.

Gravity-powered [slow or rapid] sand filters and the use of chemical coagulants in gravity-powered systems have been successful in developing countries at low cost to the residents, can be built with local materials and labor, and do not require the same expertise to operate as the electricity-powered plants that come gift-wrapped from the first-world. Admittedly, these solutions have their pitfalls as well. Slow sand filters require large plots of land (rapid filters require relatively smaller area), and slow and rapid filters are somewhat complex, expensive and maintenance procedures may not be properly administered/can be costly. The use of chemical coagulants requires a trained plant operator to dose correctly and the ongoing investment in coagulant and treatment chemicals, however, advances in the research and design of this system has led to superior results at values less than that of traditional treatment options. Awareness and actually believing that the technology works and that it is needed and worth the sticker price (versus sticking with the normal and just drinking the water as is) may prevent implementation of these solutions as well. Other option involve point-of-use solutions, such as ceramic water filters, iodine tablets and portable water purification devices, such as the LifeSaver bottle or LifeStraw, although costs of some of these devices make them impractical for distribution in developing countries, let alone having to do the actual distribution.

Having access to mobile phone technology seems immaterial when one in eight people worldwide lack safe water and lack of safe water and sanitation are the world's single largest cause of illness. Seeing water coming from the tap ranging from ecru to chocolate colored is not something we often have to deal with in our homes with indoor plumbing and running water that comes from our treatment plants with their large flocculation and sedimentation tanks and chlorine treatment. We hardly think about the process behind it, but if we want to achieve the goals in front of us to make sure everyone can enjoy this luxury, we can't think that what works here is the solution that can be applied everywhere and instead of just leapfrogging, we're going to need to look before we leap.