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Responding to arsenic contamination through low-cost technology

Bhattari’s husband, the “Bhalmansa” (leader) of the village is also convinced of the filters use

Many communities in Kanchanpur, in Far Western Nepal, drink from water sources contaminated by arsenic. Communities, such as Krishnapur, are largely ignorant of the contamination, having moved into the area only in the past ten years.

Working to implement water, hygiene and sanitation interventions in disaster prone communities in Kanchanpur District, Mercy Corps introduced low-cost filters as part of the wider project objective.

In Bhattari Devi Rana’s village 30% of water sources have up to five times the safe limit of arsenic within them. A quarter of all pumps have over 5 times the safe level of contamination.

In response, Mercy Corps trialed two types of filter - one using a commercially purchased bucket as a container, the other using locally produced clay pots. This low-cost, low-tech approach involves the filtration of water through sand, iron (household nails), and gravel in either clay pots or plastic buckets. As such, both approaches use locally available filter materials with only iron nails (at $2.20 a filter) needing purchase.

The test models are already proving popular, with the community keen to expand.

Arsenic does not necessarily produce bad tasting water but in this village the water has never been good. Often brown in colour it is seen as the cause of diarrheal illness and the discoloration of food and all cooking pots. The discoloration is the result of a high iron content, which also gives the water a distinctive ferrous smell. Interestingly, rather than adding to this iron content, the arsenic removing filters are reducing the iron characteristics as well.

Bhattari Devi Ram doesn’t know her age but thinks it is over 60. She has lived in Krishnapur for 8 years with her husband and family and has been selected as one of those in the village to test the two types filters, side by side.

Mira Rana, Manisa Rana and Bhattari Devi Rana of the Banara Women’s group

“Before, when we cooked rice, or lentils and vegetables, everything became black. It was embarrassing giving food to guests, and you can see all our pots were stained yellow. The water also smelt, as sometimes did the food. The water from the new filters is clean and clear. Other people are already asking to use it, so soon everyone will want one”

Mira Rana, another group member and assistant in a local school, added:

“Diarrhea, vomiting and dysentery are common here, especially among children and we are sure it is due to the water. We are keen to work on these issues and are all actively engaged in the women’s group. We hope to give out loans for health purposes soon, as one of its first activities”.

The women’s group is also exploring the development of a community nursery nearby, to produce plants for sale and local use in disaster mitigation along riverbanks, supported by the Mercy Corps project.

While Mercy Corps is offering filters free to households with contaminated pumps, the goal is that in future, people will build their own, and potentially sell them to other households in the community. The test clay pot filters cost $15.50, but by community members contributing locally available materials - such as sand and locally made support frames - this can be reduced to $9.10. It can be further reduced to $4.80 if local potters produce designs to match those of the market bought pots. The pots are not only proving to be low-cost, 100% filtration results and local demonstrations are both promoting replication.

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