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How drinking floodwater is saving lives (yes, really!)

By Rachel England Friday 10 January 2014

Life straw

You’re probably familiar with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. This old saying is even more fitting of late, as the UK has been besieged with heavy rain and widespread flooding: every news programme worth its salt has a poor reporter wading down streets up to their shins in the murky brown filth. Floodwater is pretty grim, and the last thing we’d think of doing is drinking it, right?

Well yes, obviously. But for some parts of the world those affected by flooding have little choice, and as clean supplies are cut off, or are out of reach, people are forced to drink water teeming with disease and parasites.

But a clever invention means that floodwater could actually become a viable source of drinking water, helping save lives and reduce the global dependency on freshwater sources.

Life straw

The innovative ‘LifeStraw’ removes 99.9999% of waterborne bacteria and 99.9% of parasites from dirty water, purifying it without the need for electricity, chemicals or running water. It’s more effective than boiling, and doesn't require as much time or energy. Plus, a single unit is able to filter up to 1,000 litres of water – enough for one person for a whole year!

Designed by Swedish company Vestergaard Frandsen for people living in developing nations and for use during humanitarian crises, the LifeStraw was named by Forbes magazine as ‘One of Ten Things that Will Change the Way We Live’ – and rightly so, as the smart invention was distributed during the Haiti earthquake, 2010 Pakistan floods, 2011 Thailand floods and to more than 10,000 children and households in Kenya, which suffers from serious ongoing drought. More recently, LifeStraws have played a vital role in humanitarian work in the Philippines, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. One small rotary club in South Wales alone orchestrated a shipment of 5,000 LifeStraws to affected individuals.

As well as providing clean, safe drinking water for those in desperate need, LifeStraws have also become popular with adventurers and trekkers, and Vestergaard is committed to using profits from such sales to provide water purifiers to schools in Africa. This had led to a nearly 50% reduction in diarrheal illness, a 42% reduction in absenteeism, and an incalculable effect on the lives of school-age girls, who often miss out on an education as they’re tasked with gathering water instead.

It’s unlikely that such humanitarian work will serve as a blueprint for water provision in the UK, but with resources becomingly increasingly scarce, it’s not completely unfeasible that one day we might be reliant on floodwater for consumption. It sounds rather unpleasant, and we may have no choice but to suck it up – but at least with a LifeStraw we could do so cleanly and safely.

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