Developments in nanotechnology could help provide clean, safe and inexpensive drinking water for everyone.

Access to clean water is a basic human need, yet one fifth of the world’s population struggles to find a safe and sustainable supply, according to international development charity, Practical Action.

In Kenya, Masai women often have to remove their daughters from school to help in the gruelling search for water. Rivers, lakes and watering holes normally used as sources of water are drying up, while wells are often rendered useless as the water table drops, leaving water saline and undrinkable. Once communities find a water supply it is often contaminated, meaning people face a huge dilemma; do they risk disease or continue in their search? This situation raises a number of questions. What if there was a new cost effective way to decontaminate water? A new technology, so small it cannot be seen with the naked eye?

Nanotechnology research

Nanofiltration membranes (polymer filters) are already widely used to remove salts and micro pollutants. This works by the membranes selectively rejecting substances which remove harmful pollutants, while retaining nutrients. Nanotechnology is expected to improve membrane technology which will drive down costs of desalination – currently a big factor. Materials for nanofilters include naturally occurring mineral porous structures and clays, which can be manipulated for greater control over pore size. Researchers are also developing new materials that are more effective than conventional polymer filters. New filters and desalination devices that incorporate nanotechnology are already on the market and new discoveries that are currently being published could soon result in even more efficient and cheaper filters. The truth is that research is focused on meeting the wants of rich consumers; scant attention is paid to the needs of people in the developing world. Each new technology that comes along tends to result in a wider gap between the rich and the poor. The founder of Practical Action, economist EF Schumacher, observed that, “new technologies are developed only when people of power and wealth back the development. ”He asked: “How do we enable new science-led technologies to deliver products which fulfil human needs, rather than consumer wants?” Nanotechnology is being hailed as a major breakthrough in industries throughout the world. Practical Action has a keen interest in how it could help in the fight against poverty.

Cleaner water

It can be difficult to envisage how nanotechnology works, as a nanometre is just a millionth of a millimetre. It might be easier to imagine this as taking a human hair and dividing it by 80,000 – each piece would be one nanometre wide. However, new technologies are not without their risks. Without proper consultation with communities who will benefit, this could fail due to a lack of understanding. New technologies bring fear if they are not explained. For example, how do you allay people’s fears that water no longer has the “smell” that they are used to? The problem still remains that water is a market commodity, it is unaffordable, it is scarce, it is a long way away and the responsibility for collecting it normally falls to women and girls. Where wells exist, they are crammed next to latrines and difficult to seal off from contamination. If the nano-dialogues debate can be taken forward with more research and greater interaction with the communities who would benefit, it could be the first step on a very successful road to enable scientists to have an impact on real human needs. It’s ethos is the right idea – however small – can change lives. Simple or sophisticated, practical answers must be firmly in the hands of local people.

Jane Eason is a media officer for Practical Action.