University of California, Berkeley

Ending arsenic poisoning for marginalized people via safe drinking water Highly Ranked

Clean water supply

Scaling-up our proven, affordable, arsenic-removal technology for drinking water will serve 4-5 million people and demonstrate a viable business model to end arsenic poisoning globally.

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Lead Organization

University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley, California, United States

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

200 million historically marginalized people worldwide have no choice but to drink water containing toxic levels of arsenic. Chronic arsenic poisoning has no cure. Consequences include painful disabilities, internal cancers, and death. We invented and have successfully deployed a robust arsenic-removal technology (ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation, “ECAR”) to provide poor rural communities with safe, affordable drinking water. ECAR is inexpensive and designed to work even under harsh conditions. It allows water to be purified locally in marginalized communities and sold at affordable prices while creating local employment and generating sufficient revenue for sustainable operation and further expansion. With MacArthur funding, we will build 1,004 plants in India, USA, and Nigeria to provide safe drinking water to 4-5 million people. Our scale-up will demonstrate the financial viability and community engagement needed to cross the adoption tipping point, ending what the World Health Organization has called “the largest mass poisoning in recorded history.”

Problem Statement

200 million marginalized people worldwide are poisoned by toxic levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater they depend on for drinking. Millions regularly consume concentrations 50 to 100 times higher than WHO’s recommended limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and suffer severe long-term health consequences. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater primarily afflicts poor rural communities. Poisoning is most prevalent in parts of India and Bangladesh. According to the US-EPA, lifetime consumption of water with 250 ppb arsenic—common in these areas—causes 18,000 excess internal cancers per 100,000 individuals, posing an unacceptably high risk. Meeting SDG 6 requires a solution to this problem. Past attempts to mitigate arsenic exposure from groundwater in South Asia have rapidly failed after initial implementation for multiple reasons that include:1. superficial follow-up that neglects the technology’s field performance;2. risky short-cuts in the field placement of new technologies; and3. inattention to the social integration, consumer acceptance, and affordability of the technology. A concerted effort is needed to cross the adoption tipping point and achieve maximum impact through the scale-up of financially viable arsenic remediation plants that achieve social acceptance and long-term success. We will demonstrate that this is possible on a replicable basis with 1,000 plants in India. Four additional plants—two each in the US and Nigeria—will demonstrate effectiveness in other regions of high need. The financial viability of these plants will attract social and private capital to build the 40,000 plants ultimately needed to serve the 200 million arsenic-affected people worldwide.

Solution Overview

Over a five year period, we will install and operate 1,004 community-scale ECAR plants that deliver safe drinking water. These plants will benefit poor, marginalized communities in India, Nigeria, and the US that require robust, inexpensive arsenic removal. ECAR remains technologically superior to other approaches in effectiveness, affordability, scalability, and capacity for operation in remote areas with intermittent electricity. The immediate beneficiaries will be 4-5 million of the most seriously arsenic-poisoned people on the planet. One thousand plants will serve people from poor rural communities in India, with four additional plants serving communities in the rural US and Nigeria. We will prioritize children by situating plants on or near school grounds. Activities during this period will include installation, community outreach, public awareness campaigns, operator training, water monitoring, impact assessment, and continuous quality learning. We will evaluate success with surveys, cash flow analyses, and pre- and post-intervention measurement of arsenic levels in urine samples. Our three-year operational experience in India showed that revenue from water sales at 1 US cent per liter more than covers all costs and yields a financial surplus, enabling the building of more plants. Additional community benefits include large savings in arsenic-related medical expenses; longer, healthier working lives; avoidance of arsenicosis-related social stigma, primarily affecting women; and prevention of cognitive impairments in children. This project will demonstrate the scalability and financial sustainability of our model, which will attract the large public and private investments required to end this mass poisoning globally.

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Project Funders

  • IUSSTF Indo-US Science and Technology Forum 2014 - 2017
  • UCOP-Tobacco Related Disease Research Program 2019 - 2022
  • USAID (US Agency for International Development ) 2012 - 2020

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