Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
A Socially Sustainable Water Solution Could End Largest Mass Poisoning in History

Nearly 60 million people in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India have to rely on arsenic-contaminated groundwater for their basic needs. This has been described as the largest case of mass poisoning in human history.[1] Arsenic slowly builds up in the body and causes cancers, painful lesions and skin burns. Arsenic also has social consequences, as arsenicosis becomes a cause for social exclusion.[2] During the last two decades, efforts to end the crisis have included the provision of household filters, community treatment units and rainwater storage facilities. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been successful.

Today, the vast majority of these systems are defunct, for lack of use and maintenance. University of California, Berkeley Professor Ashok Gadgil’s water group has invented and developed ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (ECAR), designed to provide locally affordable, arsenic-safe water at the community level. The treatment process relies on the generation of electro-coagulated iron oxides with a strong adsorption affinity for arsenic.[3] In order to sustainably reach the poor in rural settings, a safe water technology must[4]:

  • Be robust in difficult field conditions
  • Require a minimal supply chain
  • Have a mechanism for cost recovery
  • Have a good social embedding

ECAR has been designed with all of these challenges in mind. The operating costs of ECAR are low enough (approximately 0.4 cents/L including operation, maintenance and amortization of capital) that it is possible to sell water at a locally affordable price while recovering costs. My research builds on this work to bring two additions to the present technology: (1) a study of the simultaneous removal of arsenic and pathogens from water using iron electro-coagulation; (2) a better understanding of the distribution strategies to maximize the impact of ECAR in the field.

ECAR

The distribution model envisioned for ECAR-treated water is one of micro-utilities selling and delivering water to households. Cost-recovery through water pricing is necessary to reach the scale of 60 million people and to achieve sustainability.

This distribution model is made possible by the very low operating costs of ECAR. However, while affordability is necessary to achieve sustained impact, it doesn’t guarantee it — social acceptance is also essential. Specifically, the distribution model envisioned for ECAR comes with a significant social challenge, as it requires moderate behavior change from future consumers. In the Bengal Basin, communities are not used to purchasing water. Water gets pumped from individual wells and owning a well is a source of pride and social recognition for a household. Micro water utilities, although providing a solution to a public health threat, may disrupt the cultural relationships of communities with water. It will be a challenge to create new norms given the current relationship of residents to water.

Arsenic is also colorless and tasteless, and its chronic ingestion yields health problems only in the long term and mostly in adults. Therefore, it will be necessary to put in continuous efforts to sustain the enthusiasm of poor households for a solution that they have to buy and whose benefits they will only see in the long term. This will be addressed in the implementation model, which includes ongoing funding for social marketing as well as partnerships with local schools to teach children the importance of clean water to health.

Recognizing that all of the above obstacles contribute to a behavior change challenge, the second phase of my research will build on findings in social sciences to help design innovative strategies to induce such behavior change. Finally, I plan to investigate the ability of the distribution model envisioned for ECAR to reach the poorest fraction of communities. These “social engineering” questions need to be answered for ECAR to be a successful and socially beneficial technology. The prize I received from Dow’s SISCA program will enable me to conduct field research in order to help answer these questions.

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