Mount Royal professor develops cheap purification process

Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes have struck all over the world in recent years. Aside from the obvious devastation to the infrastructure, buildings and lives of those in the community, there is other damage that proves to be just as devastating but much harder to see: the lack of clean water.

One Calgary environmental scientist has developed a technology to help minimize the devastation that can hit countries after a disaster by providing clean water — a substance that can oftentimes mean the difference between life and death.

A NEW HOPE

Roger Saint-Fort has created and set up two prototype water systems, one in Cameroon and the other Cambodia. He developed the system to provide safe drinking water for populations affected by natural disasters.

He hopes to set up his latest model in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake has created a lack of clean water.

Saint-Fort, the chair of the environmental sciences department at Mount Royal University, was born in Haiti but moved to Montreal with his parents when he was 13 years old. Being born in Haiti, Saint-Fort still feels a strong connection to the country and has compassion for those who need help, he said.

“I realize life has been good to me, so that’s one way to (give back) to humanity,” said Saint-Fort. “Because of the opportunities I have had over time, I’d like to keep working to make the system better and more effective, and hopefully can keep improving lives.”

Saint-Fort’s system will provide clean water to Haitians still recovering from 2010’s earthquake.
Photo by: Tatum Anderson
The scientist said he is looking forward to getting started on building the system this summer in a number of communities, after preliminary test sites in Haiti showed the system can work in the country’s environment.

However, having the process work is only half the battle. The key point stressed by Saint-Fort is to guarantee the water system is sustainable by the community it is set up in, ensuring the system can continue functioning without outside help.

“The people can take care of it, and it doesn’t require a lot of resources to make it function and ensure it works properly,” Saint-Fort said.

SCIENCE STRIKES BACK

Saint-Fort said his system uses gravity to do much of the work for passing the water through the polyvinyl-chloride (PVC) pipes and filters. Water is pumped from the source into a large cistern above the filters, allowing it to naturally flow through the system.

The water travels through a number of filters; the first is designed to remove sediment like sand and dirt. This is followed by exposure to ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, specifically coliform, a bacteria that can cause severe health problems and even death when sanitary conditions are lacking.

“The water will also pass through a filtration bed of activated charcoal to remove any potential contaminant that hasn’t been removed from the previous steps,” said the scientist. “In the end, people will have a very good water quality, which in essence will be as good as tap water here in Calgary — or even better.”

He added the water system will be connected to an underground system of PVC pipes that lead to individual households, providing safe, clean water to the residents’ homes.

The materials are basic items like PVC piping, a large cistern and smaller containment units for the individual filters throughout the process, and some charcoal.

“It is also cost-effective,” said Saint-Fort. “To date it is only about $300 [per system].”

The low cost is what makes it so important to Haiti, a country where much of the population lives in poverty.

Arabella Baribeau, a Haitian-born Calgarian, said her family has seen first-hand the lasting effects of the quake.

“The earthquake really scared me,” she said, although she was not in Haiti when it hit. “I have the larger half of my family still living there, and most of them don’t have water to cook, clean or even to drink right now. Too many people are getting sick.

“After the earthquake, there’s no way that my family can afford it either. They don’t even have money for a proper house right now. I am lucky to speak to any of them just once a month because they don’t have any electricity or phone.”

This is a scenario shared by many of Haiti’s population.

Saint-Fort said part of his heart still lives in Haiti, and he wants to help families like Baribeau’s in their struggle to recover from the earthquake.

RETURN OF CHOLERA

The World Health Organization’s website notes a need for projects like Saint-Fort’s, reporting there has been a lack of funding for non-government organizations that entered Haiti in response to the earthquake and causing many of them to leave the country.

According to the WHO, less intervention by NGOs means an increased risk of communicable diseases such as cholera, which has ravaged the country since the earthquake. Due to the lack of suitable water to create sanitary conditions, Haiti has seen a outbreak of the disease; as of December 2010, there were 80,860 cases of cholera and 1,817 related deaths throughout the country. The outbreak has not yet been resolved.

With the Haitian project, Saint-Fort will set up one or two systems in smaller communities to work out any possible problems that may arise. From there he will then draft a plan for implementing the process for several more communities.

Roger Saint-Fort holds one of the filter connections for his purification system.
Photo by: Tatum Anderson

He plans to start setting up the systems this summer — a process that will only take a few weeks.

Saint-Fort will be bringing most of the materials from Canada, but will seek the help of the local people for the building of the purification system because it “builds a sense of ownership and pride in the work that they’ve done.

“It will also help economically because there will be less of a need to pay for medications. Haitians already don’t have disposable income, so when they can spend less for treating illness, they can use that money elsewhere to sustain other needs.”

tanderson@cjournal.ca