by Maura O’Neill, Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Counselor to the Administrator, USAID
From the hills of western Kenya to the coastlines of Haiti, blue bins are popping up unexpectedly across local landscapes. These unassuming plastic containers positioned near communal water sources and propped on stands built from local materials, don’t exactly seem like life-saving innovations–but ask the half million people who use them daily, and they will tell you otherwise.
These modest-looking systems are the water purifying Chlorine Dispensers developed by Connecticut-based NGO Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA). These systems are designed to bring clean water to beneficiaries like Martin Ouma, the Head Teacher at Busidibu Primary School in Kenya, and his students. Martin tells a common story that is echoed among the communities whose lives are transformed by Chlorine Dispensers: “The dispenser has reduced diarrhea in schools. Standards have gone up, and diseases related to drinking water have been minimized.”
An old problem
Limited access to safe water in communities like Martin’s is way too common. Globally, 780 million people live without safe drinking water, which leads to frequent contraction of diarrheal disease–a leading cause of death for children under five years old and responsible for one million deaths per year in that age group alone.
Many communities seek solutions through protected communal water sources or, if they can afford it, water pipeline systems. But even these seemingly promising interventions often fail, since the health benefits of purified water at the source are immediately lost when that water is re-contaminated with a dirty cup or an unwashed hand.
Use of chlorine has long been known as an effective solution to recontamination because it keeps water purified for up to 72 hours. But when it was sold in small inexpensive bottles, few people bought and used them.
Why was that some researchers asked?
A cheaper solution for more impact
IPA used an evaluation method frequently used to assess the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals: randomized control trials (RCTS). RCTs involve comparing groups that receive an intervention with groups that do not; this comparison can provide significant insight into what works and what doesn’t work in development.
They tweaked the delivery mechanism to see if that would lead to better uptake. They positioned a plastic chlorine container by a local water hole or stream. Manufactured in Nairobi with a valve made in Minneapolis, the container delivered the exact dose needed for the average water can. With this blue jug, almost 2/3 of the households using that water source now have clean water.
At scale, chlorine dispensers could cost less than $0.50 per person annually, making chlorine dispensers one of the most cost effective ways to reduce diarrheal disease and save lives. This dispenser model capitalizes on cost savings from delivering chlorine to communities in bulk and using local promoters to encourage sustained use.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) WASH for Life Partnership selected Dispensers for Safe Water as the first winner for a DIV Stage 3 funding. Stage 3 is the most competitive category, reserved for innovative solutions that have credible and rigorous evidence of development impacts at significant scale. IPA estimates that these chlorine dispensers will scale across multiple countries and encourage replication of the intervention by other actors. It is estimated that chlorine dispensers could benefit tens of millions of people across the developing world. That means millions of healthier families, healthier kids, and longer, more productive lives…all from an unassuming plastic box. Now that’s scale.