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Clean water for Dhaka, one pump at a time

More than two years ago, Amy Pickering, PhD, and her Stanford colleagues were just starting to field-test a radical new approach to clean up the contaminated water supply in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and improve the health of the city's slum dwellers.

Since then, the team has made major progress in the project, which uses a simple, low-cost chlorination system to eliminate dangerous microbes in the city's drinking water, Pickering said in a recent talk at the Stanford Global Health Research Convening on campus.

Dhaka has notoriously unsafe water supplies, with testing showing that as much of 80 percent of the city's water is contaminated with E. coli, a major cause of diarrhea, Pickering said. The source: human waste, which is sucked into the city's water system by cracked, leaky PVC pipes.

"There's open sewage everywhere," Pickering told me for a 2013 story in Stanford Medicine magazine. "There's not a well-functioning sewer system to remove feces from the communities. The kids are playing in it, and it's very unsafe."

Her team, which includes a group of Stanford undergraduates, created a simple device, attached to communal water pumps, which infuses a small amount of chlorine into the water to kill viruses and bacteria and most disease-causing pathogens. It's the first automated chlorine disinfection system in use in a low-income area.

In 2014, the group tested the device over a 10-month period in more than 150 households and found it reduced E. coli contamination by 70 percent, Pickering told more than 100 faculty, students and staff at the recent conference. The event was sponsored by the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.

The researchers are now midway through a much larger trial, funded by the World Bank, to test the health impacts of the purification system in more than 1100 Bangladeshi children under age 5. The researchers are looking at whether the system reduces the incidence of diarrhea, a common cause of childhood death, and improves weight gain among the children, who often suffer from stunted growth because of waterborne illness, said Pickering, now a research scientist at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The researchers also have made progress in finding a way to support and sustain use of the purification system. Pickering said the group offered the pumps to local landlords, who could use them to attract potential renters. Some 60 landlords agreed to pay $3 to $5 a month for the pumps, almost enough to cover the cost of the system, she said.

"This was really encouraging to us," Pickering said. "We weren't expecting people to be willing to pay this much."

She also has found some potential commercial partners, including MSR Global Health, a pioneering outdoor company, interested in helping further reduce costs and refining the technology as a prelude to commercially marketing the pumps, she said.

Pickering said she now hopes to expand the project to sub-Saharan Africa, and spread her dream of bringing clean water and good health to low-income residents across the globe.

Previously: Stanford pump project makes clean water no longer a pipe dream, The right tool for the job: Creating a waterborne disease reporting system for Nepal and How cutting the walking time to a water source can reduce childhood mortality in sub-Saharan Africa
Photo courtesy of Amy Pickering

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