When natural disaster strikes, one of the first and most significant casualties is clean water: Humans can only go so long without liquids; as days pass without functioning infrastructure, bacteria spread and multiply, as does the threat of disease.
Large aid organizations’ answer has often been to send 747s stocked with cases of bottled water to the affected areas. But drop-offs like that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and leave behind a stream of plastic waste.
Enter WaterStep, a Kentucky-based aid organization that says it’s come up with a clever solution: the M-100 Chlorine Generator, a football-size water filter that allows survivors to produce up to 10,000 gallons of potable water per day.
Sixty of the devices are being used in the Philippines, says WaterStep CEO Mark Hogg. In November, Typhoon Haiyan’s massive storm surge and high winds pulverized some of the country’s most overcrowded and impoverished areas, killing more than 6,100 people, injuring another 28,000, and displacing more than 3.8 million.
The mini treatment system is not much to look at—the hose, pipe, and thermos configuration give it a distinctively Rube Goldberg feel—but its compact size makes it easily transportable to even the remotest of locations. Built with the help of engineers at General Electric and the Louisville Water Co., the device uses a pump, a filter, table salt, and a car battery to produce up to 1,000 gallons of water per hour.
The generator’s byproducts—chlorine and sodium hydroxide—are valuable resources for locals, says Hogg. They can be used to make either saline solution (which doctors use to treat dehydration and debride wounds) or disinfectants. Maintaining hygiene is crucial to water safety, especially in disaster areas. More than 880 million people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, and 3.4 million people die every year from water-related diseases caused by poor sanitation.
In December, Hogg and a volunteer team composed of University of Louisville students spent a week in Cebu City, an area spared by the storm that’s become a hub of relief operations. There, they erected a temporary training center, teaching 150 local nonprofit workers to operate and maintain the chlorinators. “We had people from all sorts of surrounding islands come and visit for training,” Hogg says. “The impact for us was a dream.”
Other organizations, such as LifeSaver, have created individual water purification systems targeting survivors of natural disasters. While important, their purifying bottles and canteens can’t produce the same volume of clean drinking water that WaterStep can.
Haiyan was particularly devastating for the Philippines, but the country is accustomed to extreme weather events and will surely see more in its future. This is why Hogg believes the WaterStep system needs to play an ongoing role in providing potable water to the country’s residents. The generators can be kept in storage and pulled out when needed, he says, allowing locals to respond to natural disasters as they happen, instead of waiting for shipments of bottled water to appear.
“The gift it brings is that ordinary people are going to have more tools at their disposal to do effective work with their water, sanitation, health, and hygiene needs,” he says.