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Can Solar Disinfection be a solution to clean water shortage?

Approached by the Water School to do an article on their nonprofit efforts to provide clean, safe drinking water to challenged countries like Africa and Haiti, the simplicity of their approach seems to warrant another look at their efforts. However, a report released from a trial study in Bolivia stated that,

“Despite an extensive SODIS promotion campaign we found only moderate compliance with the intervention and no strong evidence for a substantive reduction in diarrhoea among children. These results suggest that there is a need for better evidence of how the well-established laboratory efficacy of this home-based water treatment method translates into field effectiveness under various cultural settings and intervention intensities. Further global promotion of SODIS for general use should be undertaken with care until such evidence is available.”

In a report released in November 2010 by Fraser Edwards and Robert Dell, the CEO and President of the Canadian based Water School, they are teaching locals in impoverished nations to use a simple method Solar Disinfection – known as SODIS, a simple procedure to disinfect drinking water.  By filling a transparent plastic or glass bottle with contaminated water and exposing it to the sun for 6 hours, the sun’s natural UV-radiation kills the harmful pathogens that have plagued developing nations for centuries.

On their website, they have available training manuals that can be downloaded for use. They are available in English, Spanish, French, Tagolog, Amharic, Haitian Creole and Swahili. It outlines the ways to be healthy emphasizing washing hands and avoiding germs. The water used to fill the bottles needs to be clear enough to see four fingers through the unscratched, label removed PET bottle, a maximum size of 2 L. It is recommended to lay the bottles on a hard surface off the ground for two days of direct sunlight before using.

Each year 4 billion cases of diarrhea alone cause 2.2 million deaths, mostly among children under the age of five. It is estimated that more than 4000 children die every day from the consequences of diarrhea.This is equivalent to one child dying every 15 seconds, or 20 jumbo jets crashing every day. These deaths represent approximately 15% of all child deaths under the age of five in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization, 2000.

What makes the efforts of Bob and Fraser so different is that before they even thought to create an organization to educate developing countries about the SODIS process, they put their feet on ground and simply started helping the people who needed help most.  “When I first ran into Fraser, he had just returned from a trip in Africa where he witnessed some pretty horrible conditions.  We tried to find some groups who could help.  Then decided, what the heck, let’s do it ourselves,” says Robert Dell who just returned from fighting the cholera outbreak in Haiti.  Robert Dell recently recalled a conversation he had with a doctor in Haiti, “I asked a doctor there what else we could do.  He said, ‘Keep it up and make it bigger.  If you had been teaching your program in Haiti during the past 5 years, we would not have a cholera outbreak today.’

“We employ a simple process that works.  It costs pennies, and has been proven again and again in developing nations throughout the world,” says the Water School’s CEO, Fraser Edwards.  “Our only mission is to reach out to more communities to end outbreaks like what we are seeing in Haiti.”

The Water School has on their website a FAQ page that addresses many of the questions that one might have regarding the safety of the water produced as well as chemicals that could potentially leach into the water from the plastic bottle itself. It stresses that the plastic bottle used should have PET imprinted on its bottom. PET or PETE, Polyethylene Terephthalate is commonly used for plastic bottles. According to the American Chemistry Council, PET has been approved as safe by the FDA and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) however; they discourage more than a single use.

Recent studies have shown that reusing bottles made of PET can in fact be dangerous. PET was found to break down over time and leach into the beverage when the bottles are reused. The toxin DEHA also appeared in the water sample from reused water bottles. DEHA has been shown to cause liver problems, other possible reproductive difficulties, and is suspected to cause cancer in humans leading to the recommendation to recycle these bottles without reusing them.

Considering that climate change will affect our access to clean drinking water, a direct grassroots approach is needed to deal with the immediate problems that are faced each day in countries with limited access to clean water. It is important that when considering these problems, global support for regional solutions drive our understanding of mutually applicable situations. If additional research is required to make this method or others work, then this should be engaged in and supported by the world community.

Considering the chemical leaching found in the reuse of PET plastic bottles, a switch to soy based or other compounds that do not contribute to this problem would seem in order. Since most plastics are produced from a petroleum base, moving away from this to bioplastics would also contribute to reducing our dependency on a non-renewable and diminishing energy source, oil.

On the National Geographic website, there is a link to their Green Guide coveering an amazing amount of information. Take the  Freshwater Quiz -  Drinking Water and Sanitation and see how well informed you are regarding this increasingly important issue.


The Water School is a non-profit organization with a mission to provide simple, safe, strategic, and sustainable clean water solutions to the developing world. TWS was founded in 2007 by Bob Dell, a water scientist, and Fraser Edwards, a businessman with decades of experience in partnering with indigenous leaders to implement lasting change. The Water School currently implements solar disinfection through its integrated teaching program of health and hygiene.

About Valerie J. Amor:
As an architectural consultant, LEED AP, LEED certification reviewer, real estate broker and AIA associate, Valerie J. Amor is dynamically engaged in sustainability and issues regarding the built environment. Actively participating in several local, county and national organizations and committees focused on sustainability issues, she is also owner/principal of Drawing Conclusions and founder/president of Green Collar Connection, companies engaged in sustainable design, real estate development, green job training and research. Knowledgeable and well connected she brings you timely and thoughtful articles. Reach her at .

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Posted by Valerie J. Amor on Jan 18 2011. Filed under Broward County, Emerging Green, International relations, Local news. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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