LifeStraw, a design concept for water issues in developing countries | Image Source: Inhabitat.com
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Lifestraw, an intriguing design by Danish company Vestergaard Frandsen, which acts as a point-of-use filter to clean dirty water as the user drinks it. It is a plastic tube with filters and an iodine chamber aimed at aiding the developing world. Their website also points out a peculiar goal to me. On this page, Vestergaard Frandsen states that they aim to “achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people with access to safe water by the year 2015.” If this is the goal in a project, is Vestergaard Frandsen’s product-oriented approach really the best way at going about it?
The Lifestraw isn’t a poorly designed product. As pointed out in this article over at worldchanging.com, the Lifestraw was even one of the finalists in the 2005 INDEX: Design awards. That means, by their standards, that the Lifestraw “dramatically improve[s] the lives of many people.”
It is not a bad product, but it is still a product.
As pointed out in this BBC News article, there are some blatant flaws with the Lifestraw product. In the developing world, where people make less than one dollar a day, the retail price of $3.50 isn’t exactly cheap. At that price, each product lasts a user up to 700 liters (about 6-10 months of use, depending on the region and conditions). People in other parts of the world may consider $3.50 cheap, but what goes into making these products at this cost? Well for one, they are made in China. Labor laws are obviously less stringent (to say the least) over there.
However, the main problem to me is the fact that people live far from water sources in these parts of the world. In these cultures, women and girls are usually the ones who are expected to retrieve and haul the water home from the source. In many circumstances, these women are walking about 12.5 miles or more each time, and carrying extremely heavy loads of water back. It’s not only the strenuous work they put in that is a setback to their health, but also the time it takes for these trips. Women in these cultures are missing out on important education as they are away on tasks to fetch water for their families.
Wateraid, a UK charity, spends about $24 a person for clean water, sanitation, and hygiene education for their lifetime, spokesman Paul Hetherington states (as pointed out in this article).
A woman lugs water back to her village | Image Source: weministry.com
People such as John Paul argue with Hetherington on this debate, citing the fact that obviously being a spokeperson for Wateraid, he will speak on their behalf. However true this may be, he brings up many valid points about the drawbacks of the Lifestraw.
I’d argue that systems like the ones that Wateraid works with and puts into place may be a better long-term solution to these complex problems.