A True Tree of Life: The Seeds From This Magical Plant Can Clean Water

The Himalayan Moringa tree can clean drinking water while providing food, fuel, and fertilizer.

A woman and her baby stand next to a Moringa tree in a field belonging to the Apevivis association in Kpomassè, Benin. (Photo: Getty Images)

Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired , Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

How can you help prevent 3.5 million deaths a year from waterborne diseases that threaten nearly a billion people who don't have access to clean water?

Plant a tree.

Researchers have discovered that the drought-tolerant Moringa tree can clean water. In a paper published in the journal Current Protocols in Microbiology, Michael Lea of Safe Water International showed that Moringa seeds reduced muddiness in water by 80 percent to 99.5 percent and cut bacteria by as much as 99 percent.

The tree (Moringa oleifera), native to the Himalayas, also produces oil for cooking and lighting and can be used as a soil fertilizer. The tree’s leaves and pods are edible and are high in protein.

The research found that one shelled seed can treat one liter of water, and videos show how dirty water can be cleaned with ground-up seeds in less than two hours. When mixed with water, the crushed seed powder yields water-soluble organic polymers that remove most impurities and pathogenic particles from the water. The residue is collected as sludge.

Planting Moringa trees could be a low-cost alternative to importing and maintaining expensive water purification systems. “The amazing thing about M. oleifera is that it propagates exactly where clean water is needed the most—Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” Lea wrote in the study.

Although the Moringa seeds can produce high-quality potable water, they don’t completely eliminate bacterial contamination, so water still needs to be boiled, according to Lea.

He said he plans to continue researching the best ways to use the water-cleaning seed. “Future research will look into the field implementation of the screw press for Moringa oil extraction geared toward supporting women’s capacity to bring about economic change for themselves in emerging countries,” he said.

“M. oleifera should not be regarded as a panacea for reducing the high incidence of waterborne diseases,” Lea added. “However, it can be an important, sustainable, and affordable method toward reduction and can also improve the quality of life for a large proportion of the poor by also providing food and extra income.”

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