Bangladesh has seen many epidemics of arsenic poisoning since the problem was first identified around two decades ago. Despite various efforts from the government and international bodies, around 20 million Bangladeshis depend on water that has contamination levels above the threshold level set by the government.
Chronic arsenic exposure affects human health, causing skin lesions and cancer of the liver, lung and bladder. In response to the deadly arsenic problem, Minhaj Chowdhury established the Drinkwell model, which has recently won him the prestigious title of Forbes’ "under 30 Impact Challenge."
Drinkwell fuses patented filtration innovations with a franchise business model to address the water crisis in India and Bangladesh, which impacts more than 48 million people.
Drinkwell's innovation recoups 40% more water and is 16 times more energy efficient. The technology also ensures waste reduction by six orders of magnitude compared to the most feasible water processing systems in the status quo.
Many vulnerable communities of Bangladesh, India, Laos, and Cambodia have benefitted from the low cost, human centric solution that has generated income and improved health outcomes in affected regions.
Minhaj is committed to solving the crisis that is the cause of one out of every five deaths in Bangladesh alone. His work has been acknowledged by UniceF, WaterAid Bangladesh, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, and the Bangladesh Health Secretary.
It has won him the GLG Social Impact Fellowship (2016), The Ashoka Fellowship (2016) and the Fulbright Fellowship (2011). He received seed funding from USAID and Echoing Green in 2015 to set up the system in Manikganj extensively.
The Forbes’ winner shared his side of the story in the battle against arsenic with the Dhaka Tribune.
What are the major challenges in ensuring safe water and how is Drinkwell addressing them?
The unique challenge for Bangladesh is that it has a very geologically diverse landscape. The salinity in Sathkhira is different from Meherpur which, which differs in the iron levels from Chandpur. This is why we require a segmented approach.
Drinkwell focuses particularly on arsenic, which is known to affect 20 million people at all times. In the early 2000s some work was done around it, but since then most efforts have taken a back seat. Our focus is to eradicate the arsenic problem by 2030. Drinkwell’s technology effectively reduces the arsenic level below World Health Organisation’s threshold levels.
We are working in five districts in collaboration with Bangladesh Department of Public Health Engineering. The model we developed is a community based system that can work with local entrepreneurs and NGOs to operate 1000 litres of safe water every day. The households can pick up water from a nearby collection site at their convenience.
There are about a 100 houses in Meherpur who get safe water at 10paisa/litre.
Another 120 households are getting their drinking water delivered to their doorstep at 25paisa/litre in Faridpur, Brahmanbaria and Shatkhira. We have 10 of these systems until date.
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What are the gaps and opportunities for Bangladesh in this area?
Bangladesh sees a lot of pilot projects. However, many of these don’t stay around long enough to see the benefits of scale. This is a major gap. While these programmes create new jobs and opportunity, it is a common phenomenon that when defunded, the programmes shut down.
Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities of the world. Here, four million people don’t have access to clean water. We have partnered with WASA to transform their pumps and bring to them an ATM solution. Our RFID system allows customers to load up on credit and collect water at 40paisa/litre from the ATMs.
It is worthy to note that Wasa provides safe water, but the water pipes corrode over time due to rust and contaminates the water that actually gets delivered at the taps. The ATM solution works around this major challenge of delivering freshwater to households. Also, collecting water from a pump often cause locals to come in contact with miscreants, so the ATM also bypasses this malpractice in various localities.
What are some regular challenges faced by your team?
There has been a bit of supply chain trouble. Procuring parts from abroad is not easy and they are hard to replace. As you know, the operating model also requires entrepreneurship creation. This can take some time.
We use Zirconium filtration which has longevity. These cannot be found here so we have to manufacture it in Kolkata and bring it here.
What kind of behavioural shift is necessary for all people to be enjoying safe water?
Willingness to pay for safe water is most definitely number one. This requires education and discourse around the subject in rural areas. We try to address this part by engaging with the people in Focus Group Discussions (FGD) working in collaboration with NGOs.
In urban areas, the willingness to pay is already there and hence some awareness exists. However, boiling of water keeps women up until late hours, sometimes as late as 4am, a time at which the gas supply is strong enough to bring the water to a boiling degree. This is inhumane.
To what degree will Drinkwell’s method contribute to conservation of fresh water for future use?
Most purification systems use reverse osmosis. This gives you 50 litres from 100 litres – only half of what goes in comes out. Instead, we use Zirconium filtration and 99 litres of fresh water come from every 100 litres.
Does Drinkwell have sanitation and wash components in its plan?
Open defecation is not as big a challenge in Bangladesh as it is in India. However, we will definitely work here in the future. Swathibharat is a campaign of ours in India to end open defecation by 2019. It is quite an interesting model as well. In Bihar, the Dalit community has only 800 people who have access to toilets. We have used aggregate human waste to turn into energy that allows Drinkwell to produce water at 50paisa/litre. It is a symbiotic relationship, sanitation and safe water can be provided simultaneously.
Are you concerned about fluorination?
We don’t add fluoride. Excess fluoride is removed from water to bring it down to safe levels.
We have evaluated 13 “contaminant raw water quality” reports to design the solution and have also incorporated a real time pH censor for extra caution.
What is your message to the people?
First, we shouldn’t panic. The arsenic issue is solvable. However, dealing with water is tricky. You can’t tell if water is safe until you test it; it’s like an out of sight out of mind kind of thing. You can’t see or smell arsenic and fluoride. So for the safety of your family, do get the water tested just to make sure. Even the most privileged can get affected; Nargis Fakhri got arsenic poisoning. It is not a problem that pertains exclusively to a poor community. Let’s work together to make Dhaka a megacity that supplies safe water to each and every resident overcoming all cultural and social biases.