We’ve mentioned before our outstanding corporate partner, Procter and Gamble (P&G). And maybe you even heard about their big milestone a couple of months ago: providing their 3 billionth liter of clean drinking water to the developing world with PUR water packets in partnership with World Vision.
But what you might not have heard is the fascinating story of how P&G’s PUR “clean water venture” got started.
Some statistics are so depressing that they inhibit any attempt to do anything about them. Take the fact that 1 billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water — and, consequently, about 4,000 children worldwide die every day of diarrhea.
British scientist Dr. Philip Souter saw the problem close-up during travels to rural parts of Africa and Asia. He was appalled to see people forced to drink water from sources also used for bathing and washing clothes, and where animals defecated.
“When you see it firsthand and what people are actually drinking, it made me think there must be something we can do about it,” he says.
Rather than getting discouraged, he wondered whether the processes employed by multi-million-dollar water-treatment plants might be adapted for use in impoverished rural villages. On the surface, it was a fantastic idea. He envisioned a small sachet of cleaning agents that could be tipped into a bucket of filthy water, which would make it safe to drink.
But the obstacles were enormous. The packet would need to clean water from many different sources with a multitude of contaminants — unlike a treatment plant, which generally only deals with one source with well-known contaminants that can be treated accordingly. The sachet would have to improve on chlorine tablets, which cannot remove heavy metals or kill chlorine-resistant parasites.
Finally, the sachet would have to be extremely cheap, with a long shelf life that could withstand humid conditions. “There were a lot of people to begin with who were perfectly happy to tell me it was never going to work,” says Philip, “but that’s part of working in R&D. You have got to at least try these things — think big to begin with.”
So Philip persuaded his employer, Procter & Gamble, to see whether he could make the idea work. And he did. The product is called PUR (pronounced “pure”). A single packet, costing 3.5 cents, can be added to a 10-liter bucket of dirty water. It’s then stirred and strained through a simple filter. A muddy sample can be rendered both clean and crystal-clear in minutes; the user can quickly see the product’s impact. Although chlorine treatment is helpful, it still leaves filthy-looking water.
So how does PUR work? The process occurs in three parts — coagulation, flocculation, and disinfection — which is precisely the same processes that occur in a treatment plant.
First, heavy metals and parasites are combined to form small particles (coagulation). These smaller particles are then glued together to form bigger particles (flocculation), which get so large that they fall to the bottom of the container. The water is further cleaned by the use of a disinfectant, just like in municipal treatment. When the PUR-treated water is strained through a filter, the water is crystal-clear and safe to drink. (See the video of how this works).
The tricky part in developing PUR was to ensure that the process of coagulation, flocculation, and disinfection occurred sequentially and in the correct order. Philip found he could do this by varying the particle size of the cleaning agents within the PUR packet.
“We have quite fine particles for things we want to get out quick, and coarser particles for things we want to release more slowly,” he explains.
Tests of PUR in Guatemala, the Philippines, Liberia, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Pakistan show PUR can remove more than 99.9 percent of harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, and worms, and remove more than 98 percent of harmful heavy-metal arsenic. Furthermore, trials established that PUR can reduce the incidence of diarrhea among the most vulnerable children by up to 90 percent.
One might think such stunning results would have led to immediate and enthusiastic acceptance of PUR. Instead, the product foundered.
At first, Procter and Gamble tried to market PUR commercially, but found it had few opportunities to reach the remote rural areas in the developing world that needed it most. Nor did it have the capacity to convince sometimes skeptical villagers that the cause of many of their health problems was the water they had drunk for years.
“Selling a preventative health thing is always hard,” says Philip. “If it’s a cure, it’s easier. I take the medicine, and I feel better. But it’s much harder to convince someone that if they use a certain product, they will get ill less often.”
So another Procter & Gamble scientist, Dr. Greg Allgood, persuaded the company to turn PUR into a not-for-profit venture called the P&G Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. PUR would be provided at cost to humanitarian organizations, such as World Vision, along with extra funding to provide education about its benefits and use.
Currently, World Vision is one of the leading implementers, educators, and distributors of PUR, using it successfully in Haiti, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Results have been stellar. During cholera epidemics in Haiti and Zimbabwe, hundreds of thousands were able to get safe drinking water, thanks to PUR.
Such successes have encouraged Procter and Gamble to scale up the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. Dr. Allgood says the company plans a new manufacturing plant that can make more than 200 million packets a year, which will provide 2 billion liters of clean water.
“This new capacity and expanded reach will enable the program to save one life every hour in the developing world,” he says.
Join World Vision and Procter and Gamble in helping to give children and families clean, drinking water with PUR water purification packets.
A portion of this article originally appeared in the spring issue of World Vision Magazine.