Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Water Quality and Global Health

I made it over briefly to the Innovation for Global Health at Harvard today today where I chose the Water Quality and Global Health breakout session lead by Dr. Colleen Hansel and Dr. Mark Koopman. It was very interesting discussion that raised a couple of interesting questions. One particularly salient one is that water quality seems to have dropped off the map as a major issue for social and developmental entrepreneurs.

Collen and Mark started off talking about an interesting case that I didn't know about. Apparently, in the 1970s, the World Health Organization drilled wells all over Bangladesh to tap groundwater. It turned out the water table in Bangladesh has naturally occurring arsenic, leading to the biggest mass poisoning in history. Oops.

Water can of course be contaminated by many things - micro-organisms, metals, industrial bi-products, etc. One especially interesting one discussed was pharmaceuticals - especially anti-biotics, which causes an increase in antibiotic resistant germs. The problem is, there isn't one single test for all these things, and they all require different remediation techniques.

There is a need for improved diagnostics and remediation, but innovation seems to be incremental in this space rather than rapid as we see in other areas of developmental entrepreneurship. While people like Colleen and Mark have some very neat technologies they are developing, there is not the same snowball that we see with other areas like mobile phones or microfinance.

Colleen and Mark asked for ways to get people interested in the issues. Short of the inevitable war over water rights or new Bond movie stimulating interest, a couple interesting ideas were generated. One of the problems is that water quality is a fragmented problem - there are lots of problems with water (from the pollutants to access to drought to sanitation issues), not one major one to deal with. People interested in various issues invariably intersect with it because of the tie-in with health. For instance, Grameen Bank insists on recipients of their loans boiling their water and creating latrines before being eligible for loans - the decreased rate of health problems increases the likelihood the micro-loan will be re-paid.

I thought that an X-Prize for water diagnostics and purification might be of interest. Colleen even suggested so much that if they could miniaturize a Raman spectrometer and reduce the cost, that would be close an acceptable solution for the diagnostic side. Essentially, an X-Prize would help frame the problem in a compelling way and make it an exciting one for innovators to try to solve.

In any case, a very worthwhile afternoon spent talking about an issue I profess to know little about except for the times my dalliances in corporate social responsibility and global health have inevitably run into issues related to the management of precious resources like water.

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