Monday, March 26, 2007

Study: Caution on LifeStraw

(Analysis) LifeStraw, a portable gadget for filtering and purifying drinking water, has received far more positive press than it deserves at this stage of its development. A field study by graduate students at University of California--Berkeley (in the U.S.) provides the first evidence that LifeStraw may not be as well received by its intended users--poor people in the developing world--as it has by the media.

There's no question that LifeStraw has been a darling of the press. TIME Magazine (where I used to work) touted it in 2005 as an Invention of the Year. Esquire, Forbes, CNN, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune have all published glowing reviews of the tube-like device. Unlike other point-of-use (POU) water treatment approaches, however, LifeStraw has not yet been field-tested by its manufacturer, Swiss-based Vestergaard Frandsen.

Dan Hymowitz, a Berkeley School of Public Policy Masters candidate, e-mailed me the results of a 20-day test that he and his fellow students Nick Spicer and Sintana Vergara conducted in Bangladesh. Because Vestergaard Frandsen was unable to provide LifeStraw for the test, the Berkeley trio substituted FrontierStraw, a similar treatment/filtration device used by hikers and backpackers.

Hymowitz and his colleagues compared the device to two other low-cost, point-of-use water treatment methods--sterilization based on passive solar treatment (SODIS) and chemical purification (Safe Water System). They expected the 56 Bangladeshi families they studied to favor the portable device because of its convenience. Instead they learned, to their surprise, that the families preferred the solar and chemical treatment options instead.

The biggest apparent obstacle: the Bangladeshi participants thought of gathering water as a communal experience and didn't like FrontierStraw's individualistic aspect. (One Straw takes care of one person, not the whole family.)

I e-mailed Vestergaard Frandsen for a reaction. Roelie Bottema of VF replied, saying that "LifeStraw cannot be compared with POU devices. LifeStraw was designed as a mobile, personal tool and therefore aims at solving the problem we saw with people who are travelling: they need something to take with them."

Now while it's true poor farmers travel away from home more than one might realize, that's not the point that comes across in most media reports about LifeStraw, where it is typically touted as a low-cost technological solution for the much larger issue of getting safe drinking water to the 1.1 billion people around the world who don't have it.

VF plans to start field-testing LifeStraw in Ethiopia in June. So, while Hymowitz-and-company's graduate project is not the last word on this topic, it does raise a warning flag about how widely applicable LifeStraw may turn out to be.

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