Saturday, August 08, 2009

Low cost water filters for developing nations

Stuart Forsyth talked about Abundant Water at the Engineers Without Borders Canberra meeting in Canberra on Thursday. is a non-profit organisation developing a system using low cost clay pot water filters for developing nations.

The water filters are made from local clay mixed with organic material to make pots using traditional local craft techniques. When fired, the organic material burns away leaving fine pores in the clay which filer out bacteria.

The filters are claimed to have been developed by materials scientist Mr Tony Flynn of the Australian National University. There is a step-by-step guide (PDF 169k) to making the filters.

However, while Mr. Flynn may have researched how to make an effective filter, it is too much to claim to have invented the clay pot filter. Potters have known since the discovery of fired clay, that if you mix some organic material with the clay you end up with a porous pot.

The key to the Abundant Water project seems to be to transfer the technology to the local communities. The local existing potting techniques can be used and local staff employed.

While Abundant Water appears to be a worthwhile project by sincere people the way the project is promoted could be improved. In this case the presenter told a stories about family planning and corruption, which was inappropriate and insulting to people in developing nations.

One part of the talk claimed that Abundant Water used a tertiary model of technology transfer, with a partnership between the first world educator and the third world learner. However, it was still assumed that the people of the first world are needed to teach and the people in the developing nation are doing the learning.

The talk also diverted into a factually incorrect analogy to open source. The claim was made that Open started out as a European open source project. This is not correct: started as a closed source product: StarOffice. This product was purchased by Sun Microsystems and only then became an open source project.

The Abundant Water approach to development seems to be for trained engineers and other professionals from developed nations to go to developing nations to tell them what to do. This is a slow and expensive process. In the Internet age it would seem more efficient and effective to put the information and education online, so that those already in these nations could apply the technology. This could be done by providing a mobile phone compatible training course. Engineers and other professionals can be educated in place in developing nations in place. As an example of this, staff at the ANU and CSIRO work online with students in Indonesia.

Another problem with Abundant Water seems to be its charity business model. It is assumed that all the funding for the work will come from donations from the first world and be directed to projects in the third world. This may well perpetuate the poverty such projects are supposed to be working against. Abundant Water should look at business models which will make the project self supporting and allow the project to expand without donations.

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