Many in the West take access to clean water for granted. Yet, according to the United Nations, 783 million people — approximately two-and-a-half times the population of the United States — around the world lack such access. Of those, 3.5 million perish every year, most often as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene.
Beyond these staggering morbidity and mortality rates, one of the most surprising and vexing aspects of this issue is that there exist thousands of solutions for cleaning water. They range from high-tech chemical processes to low-tech filters.
Local problems and solutions
According to Sarah Tranum, a professor of social innovation design at OCAD University, “a main reason for this disconnect lies in a lack of sustainable models for distribution and adoption.” Through her CleanCube Project, Tranum is attempting to design an easy-to-use, affordable water-purification method that can be deployed in any shape or sized household water-storage container to remove illness-causing pathogens.
The World Bank estimates that 21 per cent of communicable diseases across India are related to unsafe water.
With funding from Grand Challenges Canada, Tranum is leading her project in South Goa, India. Like thousands of other migrant slums in India and the Global South, that’s a community where human and other forms of waste frequently contaminate drinking water supplies. Coupled with this problem is the lack of economic and social opportunity, especially among women.
Waste and water are inextricably linked in this slum community
“Clean Cube takes a holistic approach to designing a sustainable solution to South Goa’s water needs,” says Tranum. “By sustainability, I’m looking not only at the environment, but also at creating a means for people to continue to gain access to the solution over time.”
In India, Unicef reports that 600,000 children die from diarrhea or pneumonia, often stemming from toxic water and poor hygiene.
A participatory design process is central to Tranum’s approach. “By engaging the community and drawing on its knowledge, CleanCube can be a true reflection of its strengths, weaknesses, needs and desires.” In this regard, Tranum explains, “understanding the daily practices of women has been key.”
Washing clothes from stored water
Women’s work, women’s empowerment
By adapting the most innovative and relevant aspects of decentralized, cooperative Indian businesses such as Lijjad Papad and Amul, Tranum’s pilot project is using small-batch production carried out by women within their homes.
Participating women are able to fit their work around their usual daily responsibilities, while also generating income for their families. “In addition to the immediate benefit of manufacturing clean-water solutions for a population plagued by unsanitary water,” Tranum notes, “taking part in the CleanCube production process holds the potential of giving women a stronger voice within their households and broader community.”
Video produced by Martin Iskander