Tackling a Cholera Crisis

Feb. 3, 2017
Technology provides water disinfection for developing & disaster-stricken areas

About the author: Thomas Pack is a freelance writer. Pack can be reached at [email protected].

Two hundred people yesterday. Two hundred today. Two hundred more tomorrow.

That is the toll cholera has been taking on Haiti, which suffered a nearly three-fold increase in cases after Hurricane Matthew tore across the southwest part of the country in October.

In many countries, cholera is easily treatable. In others—like Haiti—it can be a death sentence.

“It can kill you in a matter of hours,” said Mark Hogg, founder and CEO of WaterStep, a Louisville, Ky., nonprofit that provides people tools and training to purify water and repair wells. In Haiti, the organization has deployed chlorinators and a new portable bleach maker.

“In some parts of the world, bleach is so expensive that it’s not even on people’s radar,” Hogg said. “Our design team listened to needs from the field to create an inexpensive device that makes effective disinfectant on demand.”

Above image: The portable bleach maker is demostrated to a group in Nigeria. 

Making Water Safe Worldwide

Founded as EDGE Outreach in 1995, WaterStep is often the beneficiary of school and community shoe drives. It sells the new and used footwear it receives to raise money for projects and to provide micro-business opportunities in poor communities. WaterStep has been working in Haiti since 2007.

When disasters strike, relief efforts often include donations of bottled water and bleach. WaterStep works to create sustainable ways to provide these liquids at lower costs.

The organization began developing a rugged but portable chlorinator after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when the cholera outbreak initially began after United Nations peacekeepers inadvertently brought the disease to the island.

With help from volunteers at General Electric and Louisville Water Co., WaterStep developed the M-100 chlorine generator. It safely produces chlorine gas that is injected into water to kill pathogens. The device fits in a backpack but can provide safe water for thousands of people daily.

WaterStep began working on a portable bleach maker after it received a request from international health organization Project Hope during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa.

“We knew we needed something that people could use to sanitize surfaces at a medical level,” said Kurt Daniels, director of training and field operations for WaterStep.

The bleach maker concept was fleshed out at Hack2o 2014, a water-focused hackathon hosted by WaterStep and GE-supported engineering community FirstBuild. Then WaterStep volunteers led a group from the University of Louisville, Louisville Water Co. and FirstBuild Innovation Center in creating a disinfectant device.

There was “a lot of math and science” behind the development of a bleach maker, Daniels said, especially because the device had to be portable but still able to produce a certain quantity of bleach in a short period. The technology fits in a small bag and weighs 4 lb. Through electrolysis, it creates about 1 gal of sodium hypochlorite per hour.

The bag includes a bleach generator electrode package with battery cables, a 5-liter jerrycan, measuring spoons and cups, three 1-mm syringes, a funnel, safety glasses and a test kit. The user supplies water, salt and a 12-V car battery.

Stored in a sealed container, the bleach has a two-week shelf life. It can be used for sanitization of medical facilities and kitchens, or to disinfect drinking water.

Women and children crowd to fill containers with treated water at a WaterStep project in Nigeria.

Battling a New Outbreak

An estimated 800,000 people in Haiti have been affected by cholera since 2010, with more than 9,000 deaths. With an incubation period as short as two hours, cholera often is spread through water or food. It can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting and life-threatening dehydration.

The new bleach maker already had undergone extensive field testing in Ecuador, Kenya, Nigeria, Costa Rica and Uganda, so when cholera surged anew after Hurricane Matthew, the device was ready to deploy in the crisis.

One volunteer who put it to use was Janet Dorrell, co-founder of Mission Waco/Mission World, a Texas-based ministry. After Hurricane Matthew, she flew to Haiti with six chlorinators, three bleach makers and 18 batteries. She provided aid to several towns, including Dame Marie, where she and group of Haitians set up shop in a primitive hospital.

“We started making bleach, we started cleaning water, and people started lining up,” Dorrell said. She estimated that the lines for clean water sometimes reached 600 people. In Anse-à-Galets, she also used a chlorinator to treat an 8,000-gal reservoir serving 40,000 people. Hospitals used the bleach makers to sanitize surfaces and equipment.

Dorrell trained the Haitians to run the devices so they could continue to use them after she left. She found the equipment ideal for use in developing areas—even though cultural differences led to unforeseen situations.

For instance, one of Dorrell’s batteries was stolen during the hike to the hospital, and someone in the group said whoever stole it would die. In Haiti, this is not idle talk, Dorrell noted—it was possible the thief would be killed.

“So we had a prayer meeting on the beach for the person who stole our battery,” she said. “We prayed that he wouldn’t die, and the people loved that. They thought it was the coolest thing—that we weren’t wanting him to die, that we just wanted the battery back so we could help people.”

The battery was returned two days later. 

About the Author

Thomas Pack

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