WEST AFRICA— Chlorine dispensers are a possible low-cost answer to water sanitation in a number of rural villages in Kenya, Uganda and Malawi according to a recent report by the J-PAL poverty action lab.
In a study organized by development economists Michael Kremer, Edward Miguel and Sendhil Mulllainthan, researchers found that specially calibrated chlorine dispensers—which look like hand sanitizer stations found in schools and hospitals—were able to substantially increase chlorine usage for water purification. Bottles of chlorine have been available in stores for years, but the relative expense and inconvenience of the delivery method has limited the effect that chlorine can have on creating safe water sources.
“The standard approach to encourage rural populations to adopt chlorination has typically been via social marketing—the promotion and sale of small bottles of chlorine through the private sector,” wrote the J-PAL poverty action lab report. “Despite the significant health benefits, and relatively low price of chlorine (30 cents for a family of five for a month in Kenya) adoption remains low.”
The costs of low adherence to a chlorine purification are dramatic. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 760,000 children under five die from diarrheal diseases each year. The harmful microbes behind these diseases, among others responsible for well-known killers like Cholera, abound in unclean water sources.
This is particularly an issue in the containers that families use to transport water from the local water source (often a pump, tubewell or even surface stream), which become contaminated due to poor hygiene practices at home. Even after researchers installed a new concrete casing around a local water spring in Kenya and managed to reduce fecal contamination by 66 percent, they found that the water often became recontaminated once it was carried from the spring, back to the user’s homes.
Even if the water source itself is not dangerous, it may become infectious after contact with the water transport vessel which is improperly sanitized.
To remedy this, researchers launched a new point-of-use chlorination system. They combined this with the social marketing techniques traditionally employed to sell the chlorine bottles in stores. Kremer, Miguel and Mullainthan reported that chlorine usage increased by 53 percent after the installation of the first round of dispensers. Unlike the old techniques of social marketing for store-sold bottles, adherence to water chlorination remained high, even 30 months into the program.
“Two years after installing the dispenser, 61 percent of sampled households had chlorine in their water, compared to less than 15 percent of households in the control group [groups with no dispenser in their community]” reported The New York Times in May of 2014.
The magic behind the sustained use? A point-of-use chlorination system advertises itself. Villagers have to pass the dispensers to access their water sources, and in doing so, are reminded that just one pump of chlorine from the specially calibrated dispenser could be enough to prevent life-threatening disease.
The chlorine dispensers have now moved into a permanent program called the “Dispensers for Safe Water Program,” which is maintained by the poverty action group Evidence Action. Evidence Action now estimates that more than three million people have access to the 19,500 different chlorine dispensers installed across Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. The cost has been estimated to be as low as 50 cents per person per year.
The program’s past success have warranted a massive scale-up in chlorine dispenser production and installation. It has also warranted the adoption of an ambitious, but at this rate, not unrealistic goal: the program will seek to provide clean water to 25 million people by 2018. As of now it has already gone one-fifth of the way, and provided clean water to 4.65 million people across West Africa.