2 Billion People Drink Contaminated Water, But a New Device Might Be the Answer

© Randy Plett / Getty Images
Providing the whole planet with clean water is a challenge. 

Much of the world is still going without to the most basic necessities to survive. 

The World Health Organization has released a report that found that, despite the fact that many countries have increased their annual budgets for water, sanitation and hygiene by 4.9 percent over the past three years, two billion people still do not have access to clean water. 

 

The WHO criticized current efforts by world governments to create sanitary conditions for their people, writing “Countries are not increasing spending fast enough to meet the water and sanitation targets.” 

According to Dr. Maria Neira, Director of Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO, water contaminated with fecal material is responsible for “500,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.”

According to the report, 80 percent of countries report that funding for sanitation and hygiene services are still insufficient to meet nationally-defined standards. 

In order for safe, drinkable water to make it to all those people in need, the World Bank says that globally, investments in infrastructure that supports these services would need to triple to $114 billion per year.

But their mission may have just gotten easier: A design for a device that pulls water vapor straight out of the air was published in the journal Science yesterday. It’s a little bit bigger than a box of tissues, and runs entirely on solar power—meaning that even communities that don’t have access to electricity can use it. On a day with low humidity, it can extract about three quarts of water—that’s just a little bit more than the average person needs to drink in a day. 

Here’s how the gadget works, according to the The Washington Post: At night, water enters the device through it’s “porous structure, turning to liquid.” Then, in the morning, when the sun comes out, it hits the device, heating up the water molecules. They begin to vaporize again, eventually condensing into specially designed “reservoirs” inside the box. 

This iteration of the device is just a prototype, but the scientists involved in the project are hoping that the device will eventually produce even more water, possibly accommodating multiple people at a time. 

One of the challenges of making it a practical tool for people who need water is that many environments experience different levels of humidity in a single day. 

It will probably be a while before this device is available for families who live in areas with contaminated water to use in their daily lives. In the meantime, WHO stresses that while clean water would “[ensure] healthy lives and [promote] well-being for all,” very few countries facing this issue are able to consistently fund initiatives that would ease the burden of poverty for their most vulnerable populations. 

"Increased investments in water and sanitation can yield substantial benefits for human health and development, generate employment and make sure that we leave no one behind,” said Guy Ryder, Chair of UN-Water and Director-General of the International Labour Organization.

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