How to make sure everyone everywhere has clean water

Jul 10, 2013 /

Michael Pritchard is very likely the only person to have stood on the TED stage and uttered the immortal phrase, “Let’s get a bit of that poo in there.” At TEDGlobal 2009 in Oxford, he demonstrated his then-new product, the Lifesaver bottle, which can be used to turn filthy, rabbit-dropping-infested water into sparklingly clean liquid that’s safe to drink. Pritchard even got TED curator Chris Anderson to have a taste.

We spoke with Pritchard recently to find out what’s happened since his talk. There’s a lot to catch up on. For one thing, the Lifesaver bottle is now standard issue for the British military; every soldier in Afghanistan is supplied with one. And Lifesaver has expanded, developing and introducing new sizes and products that go beyond the bottle. The Jerrycan, for instance, can process 20,000 liters of water — enough for a family of four for up to five years. The Cube is a disposable product designed for use in disaster zones; it’s now in its second round of trials with Oxfam. The M1 system, meanwhile, is designed to provide drinking water to entire communities; it is being installed in remote regions throughout Malaysia. (See a video filmed on location at the bottom of the post.)

Pritchard explained why the Malaysian government was interested in giving this system a try.

“Traditional methods of trying to solve water poverty dictate that you put infrastructure in, you put pipework in, you put pumping stations in,” he says. But the inaccessibility of so many regions of Malaysia make this prohibitively expensive, consigning residents to a life of trekking hours to collect clean water or forcing them to spend much-needed money on bottled water. “You couldn’t have that and a military budget or a social security budget.”

“By 2015, we will have ended water poverty in Malaysia.”

The M1 tackles the problem by bypassing it altogether. Instead, the system connects to a house’s guttering system to convert rain into drinking water.

“There’s no pipework, no pump stations, and instant access to sterile drinking water on a permanent basis,” Pritchard said proudly. (Filters do need to be replaced, every two or three years, he estimates.) The first phase will be complete by October this year, impacting the lives of a million residents.

It’s fascinating to hear how the business itself has evolved, too. What began as a project in Pritchard’s garage — a result of his feelings of rage and helplessness on seeing those affected by the tsunami that washed through Asia in 2004 — has evolved from crisis management to an all-out attempt to end water poverty globally. “By 2015, we will have ended water poverty in Malaysia,” he said on the phone.

It’s enough to give you goosebumps, and certainly enough to raise the profile of both Pritchard and his 35-person company, based in Colchester, England.

In June, Pritchard was named an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors, a pretty big deal in the United Kingdom. But for all the plaudits and progress, it’s clear that Pritchard is still just getting going. He recalls a trip back to a village in Haiti some two years after the earthquake disrupted so much life there in 2010.

“About 30 families in this beautiful fishing village had each been given a Jerrycan,” he said. “I spoke to this wonderful guy about how he was getting on with the product, how it was fitting into his life. And he told me all about how the kids are healthy, how water was great. I realized he’d forgotten the problems he once had, and it struck me how quickly a transition can be made. Put the means in someone’s hands and suddenly the whole world changes. They’re not walking four hours a day to get water any more, they’re not spending money on water. It’s changed everything.”

The end of global water poverty? A heady dream, but one that Pritchard is determined to ensure comes true.