The BioSand Water Filter, invented by a retired University of Calgary professor, features layers of sand and gravel inside a concrete box capable of transforming contaminated water into drinkable water in minutes.
Written by Jeff Adams, communications director at Samaritan’s Purse Canada
Above: Children gather water from a pond at their school in Cambodia. Fortunately, Samaritan’s Purse has just installed a filter that turns this dirty pond water into a safe source in minutes.
Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia— Someone, usually a child, is dying every 24 seconds in the developing world from diseases caused by drinking contaminated water.
That’s a shocking statistic, but it’s still only a statistic to you and me. Meanwhile, it is a painful daily reality to many of the desperate people I met here recently in northwestern Cambodia, where only a small fraction of the mostly rural and isolated population has access to safe drinking water.
Khorn Mum vividly remembers the night in 2013 when her two-year-old granddaughter, Yeum Ly, died after drinking water from the family’s only available source—a scum-covered pond near their village of Samboc Chab.
“She got seriously sick during the night—diarrhea and vomiting at the same time,” says Mum, the sadness in her eyes needing no interpretation. “We tried to take her to the hospital in the morning, but we couldn’t make it in time. She used to be so playful—always smiling.”
Ly’s 15-year-old brother, Sara Yeun, doesn’t remember much about the night she died, but he remembers many earlier nights when “I played games with her and helped her go to sleep.”
There is a similarly tragic story in the nearby village of Prey. The school’s principal, Sol In, says a seven-year-old student died three years ago from extreme diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water.
Lap Samnang, principal of another area school, says for every child in Cambodia and other parts of the developing world who die from bad water, there are thousands more who survive while regularly battling diarrhea.
“When they get diarrhea, they miss school,” Samnang says, “and when they miss school, they can’t succeed.”
When children are sick, it usually means a mother or father must stay home from work to care for them. That costs families much-needed wages. It often also means spending scarce resources on medicine. The only way for most of these families to purify their water is by boiling it, and that means spending more scarce resources on firewood or other fuel.
In this way, bad water gradually bleeds a community dry.
A Canadian comes up with a simple solution saving countless lives
Fortunately, there are proven solutions that will soon be helping Yeun and his family in Samboc Chab, and that are already helping the students at In’s school and Samnang’s school.
One of the solutions is the BioSand Water Filter, invented by retired University of Calgary professor David Manz. Featuring layers of sand and gravel inside a concrete box, the filter is capable of transforming contaminated water into drinkable water in minutes.
The filter is a household-oriented solution, intended for use by six or seven people. Samaritan’s Purse Canada has built and installed more than 277,000 BioSand Water Filters so far, including 175,000 in Cambodia. The $150 cost of each filter includes important health and hygiene training, plus latrines in many situations.
Samaritan’s Purse has also adapted Manz’s original technology to create a larger version for schools. Each of these larger so-called Samaritan Filters is capable of providing enough daily water for 225 students.
Samaritan’s Purse relies on local partners to build and install most of its life-saving water filters. But the Calgary-based Christian relief and development organization has begun recruiting volunteers willing to pay their own way to impoverished places such as Cambodia to build and install BioSand Water Filters and school filters.
It was while recently accompanying one of our Water for Kids teams—featuring volunteers from Vancouver to Nova Scotia—that I met Mum, her grandson Yuen and school principals In and Samnang.
Our team installed three school filters, including one at Yuen’s school and another at Samnang’s school, during a heat wave when temperatures reached 50 C. We also helped build several BioSand Filters. And we visited In’s school, where a filter installed by a previous Water for Kids team is enabling students and staff to joyfully drink as much safe water as they want—although their water source is a stagnant pond.
“We’re so happy that your organization has come to help our children have clean water,” Mum tells me. “We understand the importance of clean water. If we’d had it, our granddaughter might not have died.”
Meanwhile, the UN says more than 750 million people are still trying to survive on contaminated water.
Jeff Adams is communications director for Samaritan’s Purse Canada.