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Stanford pump project makes clean water no longer a pipe dream

Dhaka water lake - smallBefore Amy Pickering, PhD, left Bangladesh, she stuffed a bright green, 70-pound iron water pump into her suitcase, carefully bolstering a key piece of her research project, which aims to improve the health and save the lives of children in the Dhaka slums.

Pickering and her colleagues at Stanford, including an energetic group of students, have found a way to attach a chlorine doser to the pump, which is typical of the communal pumps used in the slums, to effectively purify the water. They have spent this summer in Bangladesh laying the groundwork for a large-scale study of the new device, which they hope will help decrease rates of diarrhea and improve weight gain among slum children.

In talking to project director Steve Luby, MD, for a Stanford Medicine story about the initiative, I learned that this approach is a radical departure from what has come before, as most water purifying systems in the developing world, like household disinfecting kits, put the burden on residents to clean their own water at home. Fewer than 10 percent take advantage of this option, he says, because it requires too much of a change in behavior. This latest pump system is a passive one, so people don’t have to do anything at all to get treated water – just turn on the communal pump, he says.

The need for such a system could not be more compelling:  Tens of thousands of children in Bangladesh die every year of diarrhea, mostly caused by drinking water fouled by debris and human waste. A microbe that might have minimal impact on a child here in Palo Alto, Calif. could be devastating to a chronically exposed, undernourished child in the Dhaka slums, where some four million people live.

“If you talk to people in these communities, almost all of them will be able to tell you about somebody they know who has died of diarrhea. So mothers are very familiar with the problem,” says Luby, a professor of medicine who is also a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Luby spent eight years in Bangladesh with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found the people in the South Asian country very warm and welcoming. But the residents suffer under crushing environmental problems, including poor water quality, he says.

“Water is a very important resource that is not being well-managed, at the risk of all humanity,” he told me. While agricultural interests are depleting the ground water in the region, surface water is being used as a garbage dump for sewage and industrial waste, he says.

The Stanford project is a hopeful one, however, as it shows how a group of engineers with expertise and entrepreneurial spirit can work together to improve the environment and better the lives of people halfway across the world.

Previously: Factoring in the environment: A report from Stanford Medicine magazine, Researchers reveal promising advancement in the way water is purified, Waste not, want not, say global sanitation innovators, A story of how children from Calcutta’s poorest neighborhood became leaders in improving health and Simple, cheap measures can prevent most needless deaths worldwide
Photo, of a washing area in a Dhaka compound, by Amy Pickering

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