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UV Buckets Bring Clear Water to Poor Families in Mexico

LA PAZ, Mexico – A water truck bumps along the dusty, unpaved road leading to the outskirts of this Baja California city, where some 900 people live in homes made of tin roofs, cardboard, random bits of cement and plastic sheeting. The truck – this community’s only source of water – comes every 8 days.

During the dry season, in the summer, sometimes it skips a visit. But even when the truck comes, its water is contaminated and causes serious health problems, especially among children.

“Diarrhea, stomach pains, skin infections,” Cervando Gomez Lopez lists as some of the problems his family members have had over the nine years they have lived here.

“Water has been a big problem,” he says.

 Catalina Verdugo and husband Cervando Gomez Lopez use their UV bucket to purify drinking water.

Catalina Verdugo and husband Cervando Gomez Lopez use their UV bucket to purify drinking water.

But there is now an improvement, as the Lopez family is one of the recipients of an affordable, effective water filtering system provided through a Development Marketplace-funded project. Developed by a French engineer, Florence Cassassuce, the UV bucket is just that: a 15-liter plastic bucket that contains a chamber with a UV light, which kills bacteria as the water flows through it. In 4 minutes, a family can purify enough water to last it a few days.

“Almost 90 percent of the wells in Baja are contaminated,” said Cassassuce, who worked with a team of University of California at Berkley engineers and scientists who tested water quality in Baja. “The story with one family after another was the same. They would say ‘We need an easy way to disinfect water’.”

Cassassuce’s project won $170,310  at the 2006 Development Marketplace competition. It aims to make and distribute as many as 12,000 UV buckets to poor families throughout Baja California by late 2008.

The early recipients report consistent use.

“I have it here, covered so it doesn’t get dusty,” said Amelia Salvatierra Romero. Her family received the bucket in January. Since then it has been re-filled two or three times weekly. Romero bottles the water and keeps it in the fridge.

About 500 buckets are being distributed throughout Baja and another few are tested in a rural community in Guatemala, where the water situation is vastly different. Cassassuce said her goal for the two years of the DM project is to collect as many observations as possible from different settings, so that the technology and be perfected and the way to replication would be laid out clearly.

“I wanted to make something that is not too heavy and easy to transport,” she said. “And the technology is very adaptable. If another level of filtration was required, like sand filtration, we can just add another chamber to the bucket and the water would be clean. The design is modular.”

The project has gained traction with Mexican water officials: Cassassuce is about to start receiving two thirds of the production costs from the National Water Commission and Baja’s state water entity.

“We are very thankful for this, because water is a big problem for us,” said Catalina Verdugo, Lopez’ wife. “During shortages, sometimes we completely run out. We don’t have piped water here, and many families don’t have covered wells. So the kids drink dirty, contaminated water.”

Bottled water is the simplest solution, but most families in areas like Colonia Marquez are too poor to afford it. Many are migrants from other states, lured to Baja by the promise of a tourism job that does not materialize.

Verdugo, who is the volunteer president of her community, says the UV bucket is particularly helpful when she hosts community meetings. Many mothers bring their small children, who inevitably get thirsty. She then tells the mothers about the new filtration system. Interest in the community is growing, with 50 new requests for a UV bucket in this community alone.

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