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Open waters banner logoSince 1990, more than two billion people have gained access to better drinking water through widespread efforts of a spectrum of government agencies, charitable organizations and private-sector players. In many instances, it’s a combination of solar power and water treatment that’s giving hope where once there was only thirst.

Deep in the jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, life in the remote village of La Mancalona has been transformed by a solar-powered water-treatment system. Back in 2016, the town was picked by researchers at MIT as a test site for an experimental system, which uses a combination of photovoltaic power generation and reverse osmosis to turn brackish and well water into pristine drinking water.

The system produces 1,000 liters of clean water each day for the villages 450 residents. Before it came on line, La Mancalona was like countless other communities in developing nations throughout the world. Clean water was scarce, resulting in excessive time spent collecting water and the constant threat of waterborne-illness outbreaks.

MIT researchers chose the village because of its near constant sunshine and the fact that its population of subsistence farmers are very handy. “When you live in a very rural area, you have to do everything yourself,” explained Huda Elasaad, one of the researchers working on the project. “Farming, if there’s something wrong with your well, no one’s going to drive into the jungle to help you. So, they were very handy, which made it easy for us to train them.”

Not only did the residents quickly learn how to operate and maintain the technology, they turned the system into a business, selling 20-liter bottles to residents for five pesos. The same 20 liters costs 50 pesos they were paying at a facility more than an hour’s drive away. The city has also started selling water to tourists who visit nearby Mayan ruins.

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Unsafe water is the one of the world’s leading preventable causes of death. According to the CDC and World Health Organization, 2.5 billion people world wide – approximately 50% of the population of developing nations – do not have reliable access to adequate sanitation and potable water. That infrastructure shortage has resulted in diarrheal diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, resulting in more deaths than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

Unsafe drinking water is the second largest cause of death in children under five. To tackle this issue, the CDC and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) have developed the Safe Water System (SWS), a program designed to provide sustainable, clean-water solutions for communities in developing nations. SWS works to increase access to safe water by helping individuals treat and store water in their homes, health facilities and schools.

In a similar effort, the GivePower Foundation builds and installs solar-powered “water treatment farms” in places where waterborne diseases are rampant. The systems are capable of producing up 70,000 liters of clean water each day, a supply that satisfies the needs of approximately 35,000 people.

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