and Combat Drought and Polluted Water in Poor Nations

Water is essential for human life. In addition to our need to drink water, we use it for bathing, cooking food, and carrying away waste. We also need water for our animals to drink, and to water crops. So, it’s a life-threatening problem when people have inadequate supplies of clean water, either because there is no rain, or because the water they do have is contaminated.

In the novel, Danielle recognizes this problem when she is six, and travels to Zambia to help the people overcome a drought, where she uses new technologies created by famed inventor Dean Kamen. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to just be fiction. New technologies and ideas are making it easier than ever before to help communities suffering from water deficiencies and pollution.

Droughts are a normal part of climate patterns, where a year or several years go by with much lower rainfall than normal. This can be a problem even for developed countries, but it isn’t life-threatening there. This is because they have large infrastructure projects like artificial reservoirs to store excess water from high-rain years, so they can use it during droughts. In poorer countries, though, people don’t have much ability to store water from the periods when there’s more rain than usual. As a result, when a drought strikes, people quickly find themselves without the water they need for survival.

In 2017, for example, large parts of Africa (especially in the eastern and southern parts of the continent) are suffering from the worst drought in over 60 years. This sparks a spiral of problems that makes each worse. With less water available, people have to travel longer distances to obtain even a small amount of water. Since children are often in charge of getting water for their families, this means they have to leave school and their education suffers. Without enough water, crops die, leaving people with too little food. As famine sets in, people get weaker and suffer from more diseases.

Here are some resources that can help you start learning more about droughts and their impact on poor people around the world:

There are several highly effective aid organizations working to combat the effects of this Africa drought, and the impact of drought in poor nations more generally. Raising money for them in your community can directly allow them to save more lives, and is a great opportunity to develop your leadership abilities and get young people working together for a vital cause.

  • Oxfam5 is one of the world’s most respected famine relief organizations. They help drought victims through emergency support, like temporary food and water supplies, sanitation equipment, and cash grants to replace income lost when crops wither and animals die.
  • UNICEF6 focuses on providing aid to children, who are especially vulnerable to famine and malnutrition. Those who grow up malnourished may not have proper brain development, so it is crucial to make sure they have enough food and clean water while growing up.

Even though technology is unable (for the near future, at least) to change weather patterns to eliminate drought, there’s lots of room for innovations that can help minimize the harm droughts cause to humans.

  • Water storage. A big need in drought-affected countries is water storage. If a community can store all the extra rain from years when they get more than they need, and keep it clean, they can use that water when droughts hit. Unfortunately, people in poor countries either don’t have large enough storage systems, or don’t have the means to keep water clean until they need it. The Africa Sand Dam Foundation7 is a non-governmental organization in Kenya that helps communities make creative use of local rock formations and other geographical features to store water.8 Young people can come up with new solutions, too. For example, a 16-year-old South African girl named Kiara Nirghin9 invented a promising new material for storing water by experimenting with natural substances found in orange peels and avocados!
  • Drought resistance. Many of the people most vulnerable to droughts are poor farmers. Even if there’s enough rain for them to have drinking water, there may not be enough for their crops to grow. Without crops, they have no income, and can’t get food or medicine. That’s why there’s a lot of research being done into how to create plants that are more resistant10 to hot and dry conditions. This TED Talk by biologist Jill Farrant11 shows how this is done through genetic engineering. If you study science and agriculture, you may be able to achieve new breakthroughs in this yourself
  • Water pollution. An even bigger worldwide problem than drought is polluted water. When the drinking water is unsafe, it causes serious diseases. Children are particularly vulnerable to water-borne illnesses. In some cases, this water is dirty-looking, and people are so desperate they drink it anyway. But in other cases, water can be harmful without it looking or tasting dangerous. Major causes of this pollution include chemicals that contaminate the water from factories or mining, pesticides or animal products that get washed from farms into lakes and rivers, and contamination from human waste. When people don’t have sewers to take away their waste, bacteria from feces can get into drinking water, causing deadly diseases, like cholera.

Take a look at these links for a fuller understanding of why so many people lack clean drinking water, and how that causes disease:

  • Facts12 about how unsafe drinking water is the world’s leading cause of premature deaths. It is especially tragic because these deaths are all completely preventable with current technology.
  • A BBC investigation13 into the scale of the worldwide problem with unsafe drinking water. The crisis is much larger than many people thought.
  • A powerful and emotional animated video14 about the impact of cholera.

Purifying water in poor nations is one of the world’s most important and difficult challenges. Here’s the problem: The water treatment systems used in developed countries are large and expensive projects. It takes many years and billions of dollars to build purification plants, pumping stations, and large pipes to carry the water to where people need it. Poor countries can’t afford to build those systems, and people without clean drinking water can’t wait years for them to be built anyway. Also, in war zones and unstable countries, big water treatment systems can get damaged in the violence. For this reason, clean water technologies need to satisfy three conditions:

  • Affordable. The technology has to be sufficiently inexpensive for poor communities to buy, or for charities to install for them.
  • Simple. In countries that are poor or affected by violence, there may not be many trained engineers with the skills to build and maintain very complicated systems. And when they break down, it may be hard to bring in unusual parts to repair them. This means it’s better to use technologies that are simple, reliable, long lasting, and easy-to-fix.
  • Decentralized. Since it’s not practical to build big centralized water systems for thousands or millions or people, there’s need for decentralized systems that can be installed for hundreds or dozens of people at a time, or even individuals!

There is a wide range of very promising new water purification technologies being developed and tested. If these can be made cheaply enough and distributed to the communities that need them, millions of lives will be saved.

  • Summary of information15 on six intriguing water purification technologies that might be good for poor countries.
  • The SlingShot16 created by pioneering American inventor Dean Kamen, can run on almost any fuel, and take virtually “anything wet” and turn it into safe, drinkable water. As explained in this video,17 it is a breakthrough because it can do this using far less energy than other methods. And because it uses a Stirling engine, poor people can power it with whatever fuel they have available. In the novel, six-year-old Danielle uses the SlingShot to help alleviate the drought in Zambia.
  • The Stirling engine18 is a technology that’s more than 200 years old. Unlike the internal combustion engine, like what we have in our fossil fuel-powered cars, there are no explosions inside a Stirling engine. Instead, when the engine’s two sides have difference in heat levels, it turns that difference into useful mechanical work that can generate electricity and operate machines. This means that even very simple fuel sources, like campfires or piles of trash, can be turned into power just by building a fire next to the Stirling engine—and that power can be used to purify water. In the novel, Danielle uses Stirling engines to power the SlingShot water purification machines she has ordered for Zambia.
  • The Lifestraw19 is designed for use by individual people. You can stick it into a glass of unsafe water, and as you suck it up through the straw, it filters the water so it’s safe by the time it gets to your mouth. Here’s a somewhat unpleasant, but eye-opening, video20 of two popular vloggers demonstrating how well the Lifestraw works by using it to drink lots of horrible liquids, including their own urine!
  • This amazing TED Talk by Michael Pritchard21 about his invention called the Lifesaver filter, which is designed for use by a single person or family. You can put foul water into it, and after you pump its handle with your arm a few times, safe and clear water comes out.
  • The Janicki Omniprocessor22 is a larger water purification system that could be good for a whole village. It takes in raw sewage and turns it into electricity and purified drinking water. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have used their charitable foundation to fund development of this invention and others like it. For some laughs, watch Bill on The Tonight Show drinking water purified by the Omniprocessor23 with host Jimmy Fallon!

But water technology breakthroughs don’t require a Bill Gates-sized budget. Passionate and curious young people around the world have come up with impressive innovations of their own.

  • 17-year-old Cynthia Sin Nga Lam invented a device called the H2Pro,24 which takes dirty water and sunlight and can turn them into clean water and power.
  • 18-year-old Perry Alagappan noticed that waste from electronics is leaving toxic metals in many water supplies, so he invented a filter made from graphene25 that can purify water up to five times more cheaply than previous technology.
  • 14-year-old Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai developed a new water filter that uses discarded corncobs.26

If you study chemistry, think creatively, and experiment persistently, you may be able to come up with a similar invention yourself! If your interests lie elsewhere, you could raise money to buy purification devices and send them to people who need them, through charities like Water is Life.27 If you’re old enough, you could even go on a special trip with your school, your religious group, or a charity, and give out water filters yourself and train people in how to use them.

In many cases, people in poor countries have access to clean water, but before they can drink it, it gets polluted by bad sanitation practices. If they don’t know about the danger of drinking contaminated water, even if they had the right technology, they might not use it. The answer is education programs that take into account the local culture and explain to people how diseases spread and what they can do to prevent their water from becoming contaminated. Supporting these programs can have a great impact, because once a community keeps its water clean, disease lessens, which helps many other problems.

  • Like with famine aid, UNICEF28 focuses its clean water programs on helping children, especially in schools. This is because unsanitary conditions in schools can force students to leave school, especially girls when they begin menstruating.
  • Organizations like Lifewater29 focus on community education. They go into villages and local communities and educate people face-to-face about how to keep their water clean. If feces are getting into the drinking water, they build latrines that keep human waste at a safe distance from the water supply. It’s then important to work with a community to create safer bathroom facilities and practices. As Ronnie Kaweesa of Compassion Uganda30 says, “The poor are intelligent and resourceful. It’s just a lack of experience.”
  • Many people are surprised to learn that in some developing nations, poor people get access to smartphones before clean drinking water is available. This means that education campaigns can use compelling and memorable videos to make their points, like this one from UNICEF,31 which teaches people in Ghana about preventing cholera.

As you learn more about the problem and speak with people from those countries, you’ll understand more about the problems they face, and may get new ideas for projects you could start to help them.

For more information, please see the following entries in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): Zambia, Zambian Drought, Slingshot Water Machine, Stirling Engine, Decentralized Water Purification Cells.


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