Clean water: Central Michigan University students strive to bring it to India slums

Imagine walking up to your sink and turning on your faucet. The water pouring out is clean, right?

Here in the United States, and especially throughout Michigan, we're comforted with the knowledge that we have clean, fresh and safe water whenever we want it. For us, it's simply the turn of a handle or a knob and the water pours out. We can fill up our cups and drink to our heart's content.

But what if that wasn't the case? What if every time you went to get water, you didn't know if it was going to make you sick, or be cloudy and full of sediment or full of contaminants that you can't even see in the crystal-clear liquid? What if you didn't even know there was better water available?

According to the World Health Organization, 884 million people lack access to safe water supplies--that's approximately one in every eight people on this planet. WHO has also reported that more than 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease. Nearly 50 percent of those deaths are children.

When Steve Cullen, a Central Michigan University masters graduate, and his friend Justin Moore heard these statistics, they knew it was wrong. Why couldn't everyone have access to clean water? How come there isn't education being given to these people? What can be done?

Part of the answer was simple: The Central Michigan University Clean Water Initiative. This group was formed initially to help develop a sustainable distribution model in India that empowers the community, enables micro-enterprise and promotes a vision of "clean water for all." The group has sought out help from the college's administration, institutional and corporate partners.

"The idea behind it is to make clean water available, promote health education, awareness in the community and enable sustainable social business ventures," says Cullen, who was one of the first Central Michigan University students who stepped up to start the initiative and a former director of the program before graduating and taking a job in Ann Arbor.

Over the past year, progress has been made by the initiative. A study has been started with Hindus United With Muslims in the slums of Ahmedabad, India, to survey 500 citizens on health awareness, water quality, financial status and demand for water filtration technologies. Additionally, 50 HydrAid water filters--built by one of the initiative's partners, Cascade Engineering, right in Grand Rapids--are going to be introduced to test micro-business potential. Following the study, the group will focus on getting the Hindus United With Muslims group set up to sell the filters in the community, with the money being cycled back into the group to expand the project and, eventually, the availability of clean water.

The idea is simple, as are the filters. Basically, a plastic filter body is filled with three layers of substrate: large aggregate rock, smaller aggregate and then three feet of clean sand. The filter weighs just eight pounds empty, is easy to install, requires no electricity, very basic maintenance and serves the needs of eight to 10 people daily with about 47 liters every hour being filtered. Everything from dirt and sediment to biological dangers are filtered out in the process. Once it is in place, says Cullen, the substrates never have to be changed and the filter never has to be replaced. Just maintenance twice a month and its good to go.

"It's simple to install and its simple to use," says Cullen, who has participated in the installation of the filters in several locations, including pilot sites in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Additional filters have been installed in Cambodia and Ghana.

The group raised over $20,000 to get their project in motion, including the study and the eventual start-up of the self-sustaining micro-business with Hindus United With Muslims.

For the Ahmedabad project, the Clean Water Initiative is focusing on an area near the Bombay Hotel, Dani Limda and Vatva to assist. The reason that area was chosen, says CMU assistant director of public relations Heather Smith, is because of the overwhelming need for not only clean water, but for awareness as well.

"(The) Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, has found that in India, the problem is severe due to the inherent perception that water is clean; but the prevalence of chemical, fecal coliform and other microbial contaminants is at high levels, even within publicly available water sources," Smith says in a Times of India article. "We aim to help 500 individuals in the urban slums of Ahmedabad achieve improved health and better lives. The pilot project in Ahmedabad, will be made possible through CMU's partnership with Hindu United with Muslims Organization."

Cullen and the Clean Water Initiative members aren't fooling themselves into thinking that the answer is point-of-use water filters. That, says Cullen, is just scratching the surface.

"The real answer is to bring the infrastructure that will provide clean water to these people," he says. "This isn't the answer to the problem. This is just a way to help bring awareness to the problem. There is still much more that has to be done."

The Central Michigan University Clean Water Initiative has partnered with International Partners in Mission, a group based in Ohio, to help make the program's success a reality.

While it's difficult to gauge how successful this project will be in the long run, one thing is for certain: The idea behind it is likely to be just the first of many. Clean water is needed throughout the world, and groups like the Clean Water Initiative are what are needed to spread awareness and education and to help bring that water to those in need.

For more information about CMU's Clean Water Initiative, contact Dr. O. Keith Helferich, the CMU Clean Water Initiative faculty advisor, or Justin Moore, the current project director.

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of Mid Michigan Second Wave and a full-time freelance writer. He was born and raised in Michigan. He can be reached via email.
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