No Tech Clean Water

October 15 is Blog Action Day when thousands of bloggers discuss the same topic from different angles. This year the topic is water. Although I’m a bit late, its still October 15 in Hawaii so I thought I would pile on.

I’m sure thousands of other blogs can tell you abou why clean water is so important. Hell even the White House joined in. I’m sure many of these will also talk about solutions. I wonder, however, if any of the ways of offering clean water will be quite as easily accessible as Tony Flynn’s.

Tony is one of the scientists (well technically engineers) in Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats. He’s invented what he calls “no tech water filters”. Where other water filters rely on expensive imports, often shipped half way round the world, all Tony needs is some clay, some organic material (used coffee grounds are best) a match and a compliant cow.

You take the clay and the organic material, mix them together and shape them into a pot. Then you stick the pot in some cow dung, light the dung (high tech material known as straw may be required here) and wait for the pot to get fired. In the process the organic material is burnt away.

The result is a pot with tiny holes in it – large enough for water to get through, but small enough to prevent pathogens such as bacteria escaping. Place the pot inside or above a larger, water-tight, pot and fill the first pot with water.

The downside of this technique is a typical coffee ground pot will only filter 0.5L/hour. If you use rice or old tea leaves you’ll get more water, but it won’t be quite as clean. The upside is that it’s effectively free anywhere you have a local source of clay – which is most of the world.

Being free, it has no champions hoping to make money out of it, and Tony’s had trouble getting the idea taken up. However, the small charity Abundant Water is experimenting with a variation on Tony’s idea in Laos. I’ll be donating a portion of the book sales at my launch to Abundant Water. Naturally I’d also encourage readers to give anything you can afford.

If the clay pot filter idea proves successful it could, without the remotest hyperbole, change the world. It’s not just that 38,000 children die each week for lack of access to clean water. African women alone spend 40 billion hours each year carrying water from to their villages. The filter is still reasonably labor intensive – but nothing like that. Of course, in many cases there is no source of water, even unclean water, nearby. However, imagine if the pots could be used to cut the water collection time by 10% – that’s four billion hours a year freed up to spend on something else.

So, before reading this post, who had heard of Tony Flynn? Any time you’re inclined to despair about the state of the world, it’s worth remembering solutions usually exist – it’s time we all learned about them.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to No Tech Clean Water

  1. The petition link here is broken, BTW.

    And I had heard of this method of clean water creation – I think on Catalyst, the best TV show around 🙂


  2. Great to know Catalyst covered it – I’d be interested to know when, if you remember Ricky.

    Regarding the link – not sure if it is another example of my technological incompetence, but I was trying to use the buttons they have on the website and they would not seem to work. Maybe this will do better:

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