October 1, 2005
Two noteworthy designs aim to provide safe drinking water to communities in need.
The first line of defense for victims of a large-scale disaster, such as the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia last year, is access to potable water. “Without it one cannot survive for more than three days, depending on the conditions,” says Emilian Dan Cartis, one of two Metropolis Next Generation® finalists whose products would improve access to safe drinking water among disaster-affected populations.
Cartis, a Romanian-born designer, is developing a water purifier called W-solo that doubles as shelter to provide immediate relief to people in hard-to-reach areas. It can produce up to six liters of potable water per day, enough to sustain survivors for days, or even weeks, until organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF are able to repair infrastructure and set up aid distribution sites.
“It’s not just a tent but a survival kit,” Cartis says. The device folds into a compact buoyant container that could be delivered by air-dropping. It might also help response agencies estimate the number of survivors, with the number of tents deployed serving as an index. Even during rescue missions, however, donated goods are subject to import tax, which could make W-solo prohibitively expensive to deploy, according to Gerald Martone, director of humanitarian affairs at the International Rescue Committee. “It’s a barrier to getting common goods into these regions, but a few countries relax their restrictions at the height of a disaster,” Martone says, explaining the window in which Cartis’s air-dropped survival apparatus could be viable.
For long-term crises, such as the chronic water shortages in sub-Saharan Africa, Israeli-born designer Romi Hefetz developed Aqualoop, an easy-to-carry container for the transport of safe drinking water. “In researching humanitarian organizations I found that many use the Oxfam Bucket to distribute water,” Hefetz says. The bucket has good features—including a difficult-to-remove lid designed to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases—but it’s prone to misuse. “There is not enough awareness of the dangers of misusing the product,” she says. By interviewing an aid worker from Doctors Without Borders, Hefetz obtained a firsthand account of existing infrastructure and designed a lightweight plastic ring with a special valve that attaches only to safe water sources, such as those installed by the Red Cross. The valve’s concealed mechanism discourages tampering, which can lead to contamination.
Both Hefetz and Cartis are seeking investor support to develop additional prototypes. “Few humanitarian organizations have the resources to test a prototype in a disaster situation, but there is neither support nor funding available to design preemptively,” says Cameron Sinclair, cofounder of Architecture for Humanity. (His book Design Like You Give a Damn comes out next spring from Metropolis Books.) Further development of W-solo is contingent upon finding a partner aid organization or corporate sponsor. Hefetz estimates that Aqualoop will cost just $2 apiece to manufacture, but to keep it affordable it may need to be made in the regions that will deploy it. “There is a commitment on the part of relief organizations to obtain supplies locally when intervening because those markets need the economic stimulus,” Martone says. That’s advice Hefetz will keep in mind as Aqualoop enters its next phase: an MBA class at New York’s New School will engage in a project to draw up a business plan and find investors. That is a promising start, considering Sinclair’s experience. “Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and development before launching a product,” he says, “but in a refugee situation you have a window of hours to respond.”