Lack of access to safe water results in staggering numbers of deaths each year, as well as billions of dollars spent treating preventable diseases. However, access isn’t the only problem. Ineffective transportation of water also causes disease and puts an extra burden – literally and figuratively – on women.
The transportation piece of the water puzzle is not often discussed or addressed, but the packH2O water backpack has provided a promising solution. Partners for Care, a non-profit working to decrease the number of children dying from preventable diseases in East Africa, has been changing lives by distributing these packs to communities in Kenya.
According to The Water Project, 783 million people do not have access to safe water and 37 percent of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa. When there isn’t a safe water source in the home, 64 percent of households rely on women to get the family’s water. The time spent transporting water limits women’s opportunities to participate in education, employment, or other community contributions. Unsafe methods of transportation – such as open buckets or recycled jerry cans – increase the risk of contamination after collection, even if the water was safe at the source.
Food Tank had the opportunity to interview Connie Cheren, RN/MSW, the founder and president of Partners for Care, about their work to improve safe access, transport, and storage of water.
Food Tank: How was packH2O developed?
Connie Cheren: When the earthquake happened in Haiti, David Fischer, who was at that time the CEO of Greif, went to help. Greif is the largest packing company in the world. They operate in 52 countries, and they make anything that products are packed in. They make the big barrels that water is stored in. When Mr. Fischer was on the ground in Haiti, he noticed that women were using jerry cans to transport water. He knew that a jerry can is not intended to be used to transport water. They’re usually sold with either cooking oil or diesel fuel in them. He knew the jerry cans were contaminated and could not be adequately cleaned. He made a commitment to himself that he would change the way women carried water.
Greif worked with Battelle, in Columbus, Ohio to develop the packH2O. The goal of Greif is to transform the way that women transport and, just as importantly, store water. As David Fisher explains, there’s three parts to water. There is access to water, transport of water, and storage of safe water. Not many people address the transport and storage of safe water.
FT: How does packH2O work and why is it such a revolutionary solution to the problem of clean water access?
CC: The pack is just like a backpack. A lot of people hike and use a small backpack with tube for drinking. The packH2O is a simliar product, only a lot larger. The packH2O holds the same amount of water as a jerry can -- 20 liters, or 5.28 gallons. It has straps on it like a backpack and secondary straps that go through your arms. These secondary straps help lift the weight off your back when carrying the pack. After the pack is filled with water, the pack is folded twice and tied. Either the water is safe for drinking at the source or you make it safe by using a product like WaterGuard. The water pack has a dispenser on it for easy dispensing of the water so it’s not opened after it is filled with water. When women use buckets, they will dip into the bucket and then a disease like cholera can spread very rapidly, just by you dipping out of the same container that somebody that’s infected with cholera used. The water pack can either be hung on the wall, or can sit on a stool or a table.
FT: Why did Partners for Care decide to help distribute packH2O?
CC: Our mission at Partners for Care is to help witht he reduction of preventable diseases. When we were introduced to the packs three years ago, we saw it immediately as a solution to the deaths of the children that are dying from diarrhea diseases. We partnered with Greif and packH2O to help distribute the water backpacks. We went through a very strategic process, because women for many years, have been transporting water with jerry cans.
We first had to show that women would use the pack. We found that the women loved the packs. I personally have carried a pack and carried a jerry can, and there’s no comparison. Water is heavy – but when you put the pack on, the pack contours to your back. It is just like carrying a heavy backpack.
Then we had to show that women would use it correctly. I saw early on that this was a health product and health products have to have proper teaching and follow-up.
I have followed the distribution of bed nets over the years, and know that women would use them for veils and for fishing if they weren't properly taught the benefits of the bed net. It wasn’t the product or the women that was the problem. It was the way that the product was distributed.
We did research and demonstration projects following women who were using the water packs. We partnered with Mount Kenya University who helped with the research projects. We found out that after even three years, we had a 95 percent continued correct use of the water pack.
FT: How does this convenient way to transport water change the lives of women?
Number one is the backpack helps their backs and their heads because many women carry the water on their head. And number two is drinking the safe water. And that’s maybe the most important, because the statistics show that 80 percent of all health costs in the world are related to water and sanitation. Unsafe water is one of the major public health problems in the world. The report from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 said 315,000 children under five die every single year from diarrhea diseases by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s 900 children a day, or one child every two minutes. And the WHO again in the same report in 2015 said diarrhea is the biggest killer of children under five years old in sub-Saharan Africa. The children are dying from unsafe water and not only do they die, but the children who don’t die are underweight. They’re 25 to 30 percent underweight if they have diarrhea diseases from drinking unsafe water.
It is reported that half of the hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. The statistics are staggering. For US$10 a pack, you can help a family of five to have safe drinking water.
When a nation is sick, its people can’t work. Money is spent to treat something that’s preventable. You can use the money that is spent to treat water-borne illnesses to build roads and to build infrastructure and to help with education.
FT: What do you see as the future of solving the problem of safe water access, transport, and storage?
CC: I’m hopeful that we can truly change the way that women transport and store water. It’ll be many years before women in developing nations have piped water to their houses. This is an interim step. We’d love all women in the world to be able to just turn on a tap, but that’s not going to happen for a really long time. The packH2O provides a way for women to transport and store safe water.
Some of our best experiences have been putting the water backpacks in schools. We put one in every classroom. The little children love the packs. They'll say, "I don't drink water from anything except that pack, because if I drink water from a jerry can, my tummy hurts." The way the pack is designed with the dispenser, the children are able to get water themselves. It is really heartening to see children drink safe water. What I see in the future is a focus on prevention. Why do we waste money on something that is so easily preventable? There's only so many dollars in the world, and we should use those healthcare dollars for other things. We know how to prevent water-borne dieseases.
FT: How does Partners for Care plan to continue to help provide safe water for everyone in the world?
CC: We’ve distributed over 25,000 packs in Kenya, from North, South, East, and West, and to many different tribes, and we have found great acceptance. We don’t believe in just giving out the products, because it won’t be sustainable. The overall goal is that we actually make the packs in the country of Kenya. So this last week we sewed the first packs in Kenya. They sent them to us in kits, and we were able to sew the packs. The idea is that we’ll get them in kits over the next six months. Women will be paid to sew the packs and then women will be paid to sell the packs. The goal is to make this a sustainable project in Kenya where women have employment and they’re able to send their children to school. Because that’s what women want to do, they want to earn money to send their children to school. If the water backpacks work in Kenya, the packs can be exported to other African nations.