Uganda kids fill up jerry cans at a contaminated stream for their water supply.

It goes like this: Kids walk down to the spring, fill up large yellow jerry cans, walk them home, repeat. It's common practice in Ugand­a. The footbridge-accessible water isn’t crystal but it also doesn’t appear to carry more than benign algae.

But looks can be deceiving. What you don't see in the above photo, according to Veolia’s Director of Federal Markets, Bill Naughton, is that this spring sits in a valley. Crops and farm animals surround the apparently clean water source, and their waste and fertilizer run down into the spring. The water quality isn't just unclean; it’s filled with viral bacteria. Ugandan families have to boil this water just to drink, eat or bathe in it safely.

Bill spent two and a half weeks working with the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) in four villages of Uganda’s remote Mityana District, where he worked to address this health problem – a problem that’s literally hidden beneath the surface, making citizens of all ages sick every day.

It Takes a Village

There's more than one way to disinfect water. A common solution is chlorine, which is easier than the alternative: a filter that Bill describes as “the size of a refrigerator.” For their trip they made the former, a basic decontaminant, but they also had something else that proved critical. One of Bill's visits was to a well in Kyamagamule, among 11 testing sites that showed sobering counts of bacteria.

It takes many Ugandans to remove a well pump and retrieve its water.

The team was able to use chlorine to shock-treat the well water, and although its bacteria count dropped to zero three days later, the problem didn’t quite feel solved. “You’ve heard the saying, ‘it takes a village,’” Bill said. “In this case, it really does.” Before they could chlorinate the well, his team had to remove the pump that residents use to retrieve the water (if they aren’t filling up plastic bottles from the river). Bill watched as nearly a dozen Ugandans crowded the well to force the pump off the opening, and then they all replaced it once the treatment was done.

Moving a well pump is impractical, and a glaring reminder of the lack of infrastructure Bill’s team was up against. These are expensive problems to fix. And it makes regular filtration a daunting prospect for families whose homes barely fit five people, whose ride to work is a motorcycle seating almost as many passengers and whose training hasn't gone beyond the tea they pick for 50 cents a day. Getting clean water indeed takes a village, and they need something simpler.

The Veolia Force #5

With this in mind, engineers have started testing the Veolia Force #5, a more compact ultrafiltration device that uses porous membranes to remove many of the viral materials and sediment that exists in rural Africa’s water supply. Barely smaller than a can of soda, it yields up to 10,000 liters of clean water during its useful life.

Bill helped test this device on nine samples of water, seven of which resulted in less than 1 Nephelometric Turbidity Unit (NTU) and absolutely no coliform colonies. “Some bacteria you need,” Bill said, comparing two petri dishes. “But the yellow stuff on the outside you don’t want.”

Water bacteria seen in petri dishes is shown in pink and yellow.

They saw none as a result of this small but mighty system. A Ugandan child held a water bottle up to the original sample to show a life-saving difference. And if made public, it meets up to five people’s need for clean water per day for up to three months.

Owning the Solution

Portable filtration devices weren’t readily available in Uganda when Bill got there, but that wasn’t the point. It was to show the country what a life-changing answer can look like, and whom it really belongs to.

Veolia's Bill Naughton stands with Ugandan kids.

The chlorine they used to clean the wells was developed on-site; the solar panels that powered this process are sold in the city of Kampala. Both are cost-effective systems of which these communities already had the materials, and although they may still be more accessible than a fist-sized filter, the lives it helps are all Uganda needed to take ownership of it this time.

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