Willing a way to clean water
Willing a way to clean water
Fellow expands on professor’s efforts to ensure clean sources in rural areas
Ayear and a half ago, a pilot program to give rural families affordable water purification had issued 40 dispensers that served 6,000 people in Kenyan villages. Today, more than 400,000 people in Kenya and other countries have access to clean water based on this method.
The approach, which uses an inexpensive chlorine solution and a plastic dispenser that was custom made to distribute doses at communal water sources, was developed by Michael Kremer, Gates Professor of Developing Societies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Economics Department and a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School, Professor of Economics Sendhil Mullainathan, and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Emory University, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Based on the initial study that concluded a year and a half ago, the Gates Foundation supported the nonprofit group Innovations for Poverty Action to scale up the approach, with Daniele Lantagne, a two-year Georgio Ruffolo Research Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School’s Sustainability Science Program, providing technical assistance. Several local governments in Kenya, along with the ministries of Water, Public Health and Sanitation, and Education, and the nonprofit One Acre Fund have all invested in the approach.
Lantagne, an engineer by training who worked on clean-water issues around the world for 11 years, provided engineering support and worked with local partners on the program’s dramatic expansion. She redesigned the dispenser and its holder to lower cost and increase durability, and worked with local manufacturers to produce and distribute the units to settings around the world.
Along the way, Lantagne has studied how the units are used — or not used — to better understand where they can help. The dispensers now are in Kenya, Haiti, Bangladesh, India, Swaziland, Peru, and Somalia.
In the industrialized world, clean water is often taken for granted. But in settings without water purification and sewage infrastructure, water can become contaminated with feces. That is the biggest cause of diarrheal disease around the world, Lantagne said. Diarrheal disease is the No. 2 killer of children, leading to 1.87 million deaths of those under 5 each year. Around the world, an estimated 2 billion people lack access to microbiologically safe water.
Lantagne came to Harvard with a wealth of experience in this field. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and a doctorate from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicinelast year. In between, she worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traveling to more than 50 developing countries to work on water issues.
Lantagne said she believes it is governments’ responsibility to provide clean water to their citizens, which is the case in the industrialized world. Her efforts are aimed at providing interim relief until governments step in.
“The question is: What do you do when you can’t get infrastructure?” Lantagne said.
Kremer’s initial study investigated the economics and willingness of rural Kenyans to use a widely marketed chlorine solution to disinfect their water. Only 6 percent of people used the solution when the normal price of about 25 cents was charged. But when it was provided for free, a majority of people used it. Kremer then investigated whether chlorination could be provided more cheaply using a larger volume at a communal water source instead of many smaller bottles distributed to homes. The study showed that was the case, Lantagne said.
“Insights from behavioral economics suggested that making water treatment free, convenient, and public through dispensers located at existing communal water sources — and temporary employment of a local promoter — could lead to sustained use at high rates,” Kremer said. “The data suggests that it does.”
Since then, Lantagne has re-engineered the dispensers and their holders to make them more durable and cheaper to manufacture. She traveled not just to the nations where the dispensers are being distributed, but also to China to explore manufacturing techniques. Through these improvements, soon a whole setup will be produced for $25.
Lantagne’s work showed that the dispensers may not be appropriate everywhere, though. They are most useful where people use communal water sources. In places like water-rich rural Bangladesh, families with sources of water in their backyards rarely collect it from a central location.
In addition, her prior work indicated that some cultures, like those in Indonesia, are very sensitive to chlorine’s taste, and so purification methods that rely on boiling or filtration are preferable.
“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for everything. There are things that work in a particular setting,” Lantagne said.
Kremer said there is a strong economic rationale for governments to cover the cost of treating water to prevent infectious diseases, just as they already subsidize vaccines. He believes that treatment of water is among the most cost-effective ways to prevent child deaths and fight infectious disease.
Lantagne, who will finish her fellowship this spring and take a post as an assistant professor at Tufts University next fall, said that although the toll that dirty water takes on the world’s children is well known, so is the way to solve the problem. Once countries make clean water and fighting childhood mortality from diarrhea a priority, dramatic improvements can occur, as they have in Peru and China over recent decades. If governments around the world decided to tackle this problem head-on, Lantagne was confident it could be quickly solved.
“Where there’s a political will, this is a completely solvable problem within a decade,” Lantagne said.
By Alvin Powell
Harvard Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Daniele Lantagne
About Harvard Medical School (HMS)
Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History.
“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.
Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”
About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)
Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.
About Harvard University.
Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.
Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.
‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust
* The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University