2:03am

Thu June 20, 2013
Planet Money

A Surprising Barrier To Clean Water: Human Nature

Originally published on Mon June 24, 2013 9:38 am

In many parts of the developing world, drinking a glass of water can be deadly — especially for young children, who can die of diarrheal diseases contracted from dirty water.

So getting clean water to people in the developing world has been a top priority for aid groups for a long time. But it's been a surprisingly hard problem to solve.

For a while, aid workers largely treated clean water as an engineering problem: If there's no clean water in a village, dig a well. But when researchers actually tested the water in the homes of people who got water from clean wells, they often found contamination.

"It was a surprise," says Alex Mwaki of Care Kenya, who worked on one of the studies that found contamination. "My reaction, I would say, was, well, we still need to do more. We have not done much."

There are lots of ways water can get contaminated between the time it comes out of the well and the time someone actually drinks it. Maybe the container the family used to fetch the water wasn't clean. Or the container was clean, but the cup people used to scoop the water out wasn't. Or the water got stored in a big clay pot at the house, and kids stuck their hands in it.

All of those problems can be solved by adding just a tiny bit of chlorine, which keeps water free of germs for days. So aid workers started trying to get people to use chlorine. In Kenya today, you can buy little bottles of chlorine, made just for purifying water, for pennies.

Problem solved?

"If only it were that easy," says Evan Green-Lowe, who works in Kenya for a group called Innovations for Poverty Action. Surveys show that only a small percentage of people in Kenya buy the chlorine, even though it's cheap and widely available.

"Getting it to happen in every household every time proved to be an extraordinarily difficult task," he says.

So here's the latest iteration for helping families in rural areas get clean water: chlorine placed right next to the spring or well. It's basically an upside-down bottle of chlorine with a dispenser that releases a measured amount into the containers people use to carry water. A tiny bit is enough for 20 liters of water. It's free to use.

"It's very simple," says Green-Lowe. "A lot of its success is in its simplicity."

Success, though, is a relative term. It turns out that if you test the water in people's homes in villages where the dispensers have been installed, only 40 percent test positive for chlorine.

Some people don't like the taste; some people don't believe in it, "Sometimes you're in a rush, or you're thinking about something else and you just don't do it."

This would be frustrating, says Green-Lowe, if it weren't so familiar.

"I've had malaria five times now, he says. "I have a bed net hanging above my bed, and I don't use it."

People everywhere — in rural Kenya, in New York, wherever — just don't always do all the things we're supposed to do. The developed world has solved the water problem by essentially taking people out of the loop: We pipe clean water to everyone's houses. But it's going to be a long time before that happens in rural Kenya.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, international travelers know this reality. It is often hard to find safe drinking water. Even in rising nations like China, hotel staff warn you not drink what's in the tap.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In countless other places the affluent drink bottled water while everybody else lives with the risks of the local supply. This reality persists even though governments and charities spend millions of dollars to provide safe water.

INSKEEP: David Kestenbaum, of our Planet Money team, traveled to Kenya to find out why it's so hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: This is a beautiful spot in western Kenya. The farms around are lush. There's a lovely spring. A boy comes by to fill up a container.

How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm doing fine.

KESTENBAUM: What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

KESTENBAUM: Getting drinking water, he says.

The spring water looks clean but, of course, there are some things you can't see. I'm here with Evan Green-Lowe who works for a group called Innovations for Poverty Action.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

KESTENBAUM: He bends over and fills up a cup.

EVAN GREEN-LOWE: Looks good, right?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, it looks really clean.

GREEN-LOWE: Would you like some?

KESTENBAUM: I don't know.

GREEN-LOWE: It's not a good idea.

KESTENBAUM: Drinking a cup of water can kill you or at least make you really sick. Alex Mwaki works for Care Kenya on water issues. I asked him what might be in that nice clear cup of water. He sighed.

ALEX MWAKI: It might contain fecal contamination, pathogens like those ones causing cholera, the Vibrio cholerae.

KESTENBAUM: Also typhoid, dysentery, parasites, worms.

MWAKI: Worms. Worms. Intestinal worms.

KESTENBAUM: All particularly dangerous for children. Not surprisingly, getting clean water to the world has been a top priority for years. And for a while it looked like this was just an engineering problem. If there is no clean water in a village, dig a good well. Or if there's a spring, there are ways to protect springs - do that. This turned out not to be enough, though.

When Alex Mwaki tested water in people's homes, often that water was still contaminated. Maybe the container the family used to fetch the water wasn't clean. Or the container was clean, but the cup people used to scoop the water out wasn't. Or the water got stored in a big clay pot at the house - and kids stuck their hands in it. So many ways for things to go wrong.

MWAKI: My reaction, I would say, was, well, we still need to do more; we have not done much.

KESTENBAUM: So one of the next ideas was chlorine. If families brought the water back to their homes, and then added just a tiny bit of chlorine, that should protect the water. That way if bacteria gets in somehow - zoop - the chlorine would kill it. Simple. And today there are lots of efforts to get chlorine to people in areas with unsafe water. In Kenya you can buy little bottles or tablets in the stores for pennies. Problem solved?

GREEN-LOWE: Hmm. If only it were that easy.

KESTENBAUM: This is Evan Green-Lowe again, with IPA. He says surveys show that only a small percentage of people in Kenya buy the chlorine - even though it's cheap.

GREEN-LOWE: Getting it to happen in every household every time proved to be an extraordinarily difficult task.

KESTENBAUM: So here is the latest iteration. What Evan's group thinks is this best approach to date for helping people in rural areas get safe water: a chlorine dispenser by the spring or well. Basically an upside down bottle of chlorine with a handle that releases a measured amount.

GREEN-LOWE: So it says tibu maji akunwa, which is: Treat your drinking water.

KESTENBAUM: A tiny bit of chlorine is enough for 20 liters of water.

GREEN-LOWE: It's very simple. A lot of its success is in its simplicity.

KESTENBAUM: Success is a relative term. We spent an hour at the spring and everyone who came by did use the dispenser. But it turns out if you test the water in people's homes in villages where the dispensers have been installed, only 40 percent test positive for chlorine. Just 40 percent.

Even when there is chlorine in an easy to use dispenser by the spring, at no cost, not everyone uses it. Some people don't like the taste. Some people are afraid of it.

GREEN-LOWE: Sometimes you're in a rush or you're thinking about something else and you just don't do it.

KESTENBAUM: But it's right there.

GREEN-LOWE: I know.

KESTENBAUM: Which might be frustrating if it weren't also understandable and very familiar.

GREEN-LOWE: I've had malaria five times now. I have a bed net hanging above my bed and I don't use it.

KESTENBAUM: Why don't you do it?

GREEN-LOWE: It's 45 seconds. It's a burden. I don't want to. I either don't think about it or feel stubborn.

KESTENBAUM: People everywhere - in rural Kenya, in New York, wherever - we just don't always do all the things we're supposed to do. The developed world has solved the water problem by essentially taking people out of the loop. We pipe clean water to everyone's homes. But it's going to be a long time before that happens here. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Kenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.