08/14/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Gear for After the Disaster

"Providing clean drinking water is the number one challenge in disaster zones," according to the American Red Cross. Thirsty survivors start drinking water within hours after disasters such as floods and earthquakes, but days or weeks often pass before clean water can be brought in.

Following the catastrophic 2011 earthquake in Japan, as many of 2.5 million households lost their drinking water supplies, and at least six days were needed before clean water could be provided to some communities. Unfortunately, major disasters occur every year, and this scenario re-plays in many communities around the world. The names are familiar from the news, with catastrophic disasters in Haiti, Pakistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, New Orleans, Bangkok, India, Philippines, and, in the past weeks, typhoons in China. Each year, over 255 million people are affected by natural disasters, and without access to clean water, they face potentially life-threatening waterborne illnesses.

Disaster relief organizations do a tremendous job in instantly reacting to disasters anywhere in the world, but damaged roads and long distances mean days can pass before water bottles, chlorine tablets, or big pump-powered treatment units are brought in. In the meantime, victims risk illness by drinking whatever water is at hand.

For me as engineering student, I knew there must be a way to reduce the time needed to provide clean water after disasters. I already had experience with the importance (and difficulty) in providing clean water in developing regions. As a member of my university's Engineers Without Borders chapter, I had helped build water filters for villages in rural Thailand. And after learning about the drinking water challenges after the 2005 Southeast Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to continue to work on developing clean drinking water solutions. Fortunately, I met a Cal Poly State University Professor, Dr. Tryg Lundquist, who shared the same passion for solving water problems. Together we created a compact, lightweight treatment technology that could empower survivors to immediately treat their own water from highly contaminated local sources. It became the new DayOne Waterbag.

The DayOne Waterbag is personal water treatment gear that provides all four elements of municipal water supply: collection, transport, treatment, and protected storage. It is a 2.5-gallon water backpack designed for use with the small Procter & Gamble water treatment packets that are already distributed all over the world. The Waterbags come with universal pictographic instructions that allow untrained individuals to convert even muddy water into clean drinking water. As a backpack, it greatly decreases fatigue in hauling water long distances, and, inside the sealed bag, the treated water is protected from recontamination.

After finishing my thesis work on prototype waterbags, I graduated and, like most engineering grads, looked to secure a job with an engineering firm. But the potential of the Waterbag kept drawing me back. With millions around the world in need of clean drinking water, especially following a disaster, what if I pursued this as my full-time job? With some encouragement and support from advisors and family, I took the plunge and decided to start my own business. It was quite a risk, but in 2010, I founded DayOne Response, Inc. to complete development of the Waterbag and bring this innovative product to market. Our subsequent work was recognized with an award presented by former President Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City.

Many other awards and opportunities have followed. Our DayOne Response team has been working around the world, including in communities affected by Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua; with military personnel from both the U.S. and Thai Marines Corps; alongside first-responder relief organizations in hurricane-devastated areas; and in cholera zones of Haiti.

In Haiti, we met Dimitry, who regularly walked nine miles (15 km) to water distribution points, only to get a single one-liter water bottle, which was not enough for his family. He told us the DayOne Waterbag would change everything for him, including providing his family with clean drinking water and hope to recover from the disaster. DayOne Response, Inc. is working with relief organizations and the military (for example, LDS Humanitarian Services, International Medical Corps, the U.S. Navy) to address the needs of disaster survivors like Dimitry.

So, was it worth the risk of starting a new company? Yes! Now two years into my campaign to start a business, I have had the opportunity to team up with passionate people and organizations who are working hard to improve the global reach of clean water. But we are not done. At DayOne Response, we do not want to miss an opportunity to provide fast clean drinking water to post-disaster communities. As we continue to grow as a company and in partnerships, we are focused on providing clean water on Day One after a disaster with our compact, easy-to-deploy Waterbags.

Tricia is a 2012 Cartier Women's Award finalist. For more information, please visit this site.