March 22, 2011, World Water Day, marked the celebration of one of the world’s most precious resources. This year’s theme was “Water for Cities.” There are some highlighted and noble projects for delivering drinking water, but there is also a new technology designed especially for disasters. The HTI HydroPack is like an empty Capri Sun pouch with powdered nutrients inside. But it’s really a filter you can drop in any water source—a swimming pool, a mud puddle, a contaminated aquifer—and eight to twelve hours later the pack has filled itself with potable, fortified water.
The makers, Hydration Technology Innovations, hope communities prone to flooding—like Mudimbia, Kenya, on Lake Victoria where these photos were taken—can stock up on the packs and put them to use in the first days after disaster. Gaylon White is the Director of Design Programs at Eastman Chemical Company. Eastman makes components for HTI’s filter membrane for the HydroPack and participated in a field test in Kenya last month. “In an emergency situation, often times the people are surrounded by water, but they can’t drink the water,” he says. “This gives them a way of utilizing the water that’s right there and making it clean to drink and giving them not only hydration, but also nutrients that get them past the first days.”
The first phase of an emergency response situation, the first three to eleven days, are crucial for public health. Before electricity is restored, clean water is shipped in, and medical operations are fully established, people are at the greatest risk of the secondary dangers of disaster. “You have a lot of water borne illness … dysentary, cholera,” White says.
Typically, after this phase, he says, you can get water filtration systems in place, but they need power. So until that happens the current practice is to truck or fly in bottled water. That’s a heavy load. HTI estimates that the HydroPack could have saved 90 percent of the cost of shipping water after the earthquake in Haiti because you are just shipping a little pouch with electrolyte powder inside, not the actual weight of the water.
That’s the promise of this technology: faster deployment and lower cost to bring water to the people after a disaster. As White explains, it all works through forward osmosis. “Think of water coming up through dirt, the roots of a tree, up through the branches and feeding the fruit … the hydro pack is using the same forward osmosis process. It’s part of nature.”
Natural as the inspiration may be, it’s still advanced technology considering the packs have a shelf life of more than five years and have to work in pretty adverse conditions. The packs were designed by HTI for military and recreational outdoor use and currently sell for about $4 each, far too expensive for mass deployment in the developing world. However, HTI tells GOOD.is that for “humanitarian bulk orders” the price per pack is as low as 80 cents per pouch. “Seldom do third world nations benefit from our technology, our material and design expertise. This project combines all three,” White says, proud that his company, Eastman, is trying to adapt this product for disaster usage.
White says the cost of production has to come down to about 75 cents per pack if it’s going to be sold to international relief agencies. Entrenched habits of hauling bottled water need to be adjusted too. HydroPacks and other filtration products, such as the LifeStraw Family, are complements to the existing clean water efforts of aid and disaster agencies, not full-on replacements, but before big players like the Red Cross or U.N. consider a shift away from standard operating procedure, they need to see tests and results. That’s why Eastman and HTI performed this recent field test.
White admits there’s a long way to go, and more to demonstrate that this can work on a mass scale beyond the one village test in Kenya if aid agencies are going to get on board in a big way. The HyrdoPack is still a boutique product right now, he says. “Obviously, a boutique product is not going to work in a disaster situation. It has to be more of a commodity to work,” he admits.
But in Mudimbia, Kenya, many people in the 90 households who got HyrdoPacks gained weight compared to their peers because of the nutrient supplements in the packs, demonstrating another possible advantage over bottled water. The packs were also able to filter out e-coli and other contaminants successfully.
These aren’t being widely used by relief agencies as standard practice for disasters yet, but a few thousand were deployed in Haiti and HTI is still performing further tests to fine tune the packaging design and instructions for wider use. And if that catches on, HTI estimates the relief provided by 15 helicopter loads of bottled water could be provided with just one load of HydroPacks. That’s motivation for getting the product ready for deployment.
[Also Hearts and Hands International is collecting donations to supply HydroPacks to the people of the Buvalangi District of Kenya before the next flooding season if you want to contribute!]