Tree of life

Access to clean drinking water is one of the biggest problems facing the developing world.

UW assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Sheree Pagsuyoin and an international team are working on developing a portable, scalable filter that could help rural communities where tap water infrastructure isn’t available or is too expensive to implement.

The project, which is currently in its proof-of-concept stage, is set to begin its first phase next week in the Philippines.

The filter design is based on an extract from the native malunggay tree, which works as part of a modular filtration system that also includes volcanic ash, sand, and gravel, all of which can be locally sourced.

The malunggay tree is not currently used for water filtration but has high nutritional and medicinal value from proteins, vitamins, and minerals. It is so popular in the area that the Filipino government is considering naming it a national tree.

While lab studies have shown that the extract works, it has yet to be tested with the other filter components or in the field, where a number of external variables and use cases can affect its feasibility.

The filters can be built for a wide variety of purposes, from servicing individual houses to providing clean water for relief efforts. Small filters could be used similarly to BRITA filters, whereas larger varieties need more pressure and would likely operate with the aid of a pump.

A major component of the long-term sustainability of these filters is the ability of local economies to develop the product independently of the current research team.

“One aspect of the project is that we’re going to do a market feasibility study,” Pagsuyoin said. “We’re going to look at all components … How are we going to grow the trees? Are we going to have a forest? Are we going to have [individual] houses growing them?”

A micro-entrepreneurial model could work for the production of the filters, but the exact form this will take is yet to be determined.

The Philippines were chosen for the project because of the high need for reliable drinking water as well as an existing relationship with the team built during previous projects.

Pagsuyoin stressed the importance of working in a community where contacts were already established.

“I wanted a proof of concept that centred on the technology, not on community building,” Pagsuyoin said. By working in the Philippines, her team already has the support for the capacity-building they need.

The malunggay tree can be grown in any tropical climate and requires very little water, making this a potentially feasible drinking water solution for the majority of communities that could benefit from it.

The project is being funded by Grand Challenges Canada, and its first phase is scheduled to take 18 months to complete.


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