Entrepreneurs bringing clean water to poor communities

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WITH 16 million people lacking access to clean drinking water in Pakistan and 84% of the rural population not treating their drinking water, the country is in great need of innovative solutions to improve access and sanitation. A World Resources Institute report found that by 2040, the situation could become even worse, with Pakistan potentially becoming the most water stressed in the region and 23rd most stressed in the world.
A new generation of inclusive businesses in Pakistan are tackling these challenges head on, by introducing water technologies for those at the base of the pyramid.
Home water testing kits, affordable disinfection systems and community based water treatment works are some of the technologies being pioneered.
Saad Khan, a Pakistani Swiss national who is chief executive officer of Pakoswiss, an inclusive business based in Rawalpindi, says: “By 2025 one-third of water demand in Pakistan will not be met. That means every third family will not have water and every third field will not have water for irrigation.
“If you bring in a high tech solution people are afraid of that – so the best thing is to take local materials and local expertise and to try to look for answers that mimic natural processes as much as possible. We have been looking at people in local communities and trying to find out what are their aspirations and their needs.”
The SwissPak water filter, which incorporates a traditional earthenware storage pot, alongside chlorination and carbon filtration, has been supplied to 8,000 rural customers and can supply clean water to up to five households. During the 2010 floods in Pakistan the company produced 7,000 emergency water treatment kits, capable of sustaining a household of seven for 20 days.
In January, Pakoswiss began marketing low cost water inspection kits. For around $4 (£3.22) customers can buy a kit which detects the presence of pathogens in tap or well water. Users are encouraged to share WhatsApp pictures of the testing tubes, which turn black when in contact with bacteria.
AquaCleanDrops are sold at a price affordable even to the poorest householders. Three to four drops can disinfect one litre of water, which means a 50ml bottle, which sells for 60 rupees (46p), can clean 300 litres of water. Another product, Resichlor, removes all traces of chlorine and may also be effective against arsenic.
Three-step testing and water treatment kits are currently available at 600 shops in Rawalpindi but Khan believes a national campaign about the affordability and effectiveness of testing and disinfecting water could save countless lives by reducing deaths from waterborne diseases.
“The technology is there,” says Khan. “I think research and development and scaling-up are the challenge.”
Pakoswiss is also developing a “bio solar reactor” for cleaning village ponds. Ponds in Pakistan are a focus of village life and were previously protected by law, but many are being filled in, to combat dengue virus and malaria. The solar-powered compact wastewater treatment plant currently being tested can quickly restore biodiversity in ponds which have become polluted and overgrown with algae.
Professor Muhammad Anwar Baig of the National University of Science and Technology in Islamabad, says Pakistan’s water issues are too serious to ignore.
“A study carried out in all cities across Pakistan found between 50% to 80% of all mains water was contaminated with biological pollution. Surface water and groundwater are also polluted.
“Ten years ago there were four or five companies selling bottled water, now there are 90 but many are bad quality. There is definitely a role for business but we need people who are reliable. People we can trust.”
Pharmagen Healthcare Ltd, a spinoff from a major Pakistani drug company, runs community water shops In Lahore, which sell water at a very low price. The project, supported by Acumen, now has 24 water shops, which include locally built water treatment works, which use a multi-stage process including filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet treatment to create good quality drinking water from groundwater.
Customers can buy a litre of water for two rupees, using a credit card type identification system. The company now employs 105 people and supplies around 50 thousand litres per day to 30-35 thousand people. There are plans to open five more shops by the end of April, after which Pharmagen may look at expanding the scheme to other cities.
Chief executive officer Hussain Naqi says operating on a commercial basis is the key to sustainability and that means charging a small amount to consumers.
—(Courtesy: The Guardian)