U of A med students' simple clay pots make huge difference to Kenyans' drinking water.
[Originally appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of New Trail.]
When Iraqi-born Abdullah Saleh handed samples of his revolutionary new ceramic water filter to people in Kenya, he was often met with confusion. “They’d look at me, like... ‘It’s a pot,’” chuckles the U of A medical student. “‘Why are you giving me a pot?’”
But the deceptively simple clay pot has the potential to make a huge difference to the health of people without access to clean drinking water.
Local potter Musa Omumia reviews new designs for Kenyan Ceramic Project prototypes.
“The ceramic filter is pottery,” says Saleh, “and East Africa is all about pottery. In a lot of developing countries, if anything, pottery-making is the biggest developed infrastructure. What better technology to introduce than just a simple modification of the existing infrastructure to create a lifesaving measure?&rdquo
How it works is that the wet clay is blended with a specific ratio of organic material — or temper — that burns off in the firing process, making the material water-permeable. “So, essentially you get a porous pot that lets water through, but not bacteria,” says Saleh.
Last summer, before the “pot” had been introduced and the Kenya Ceramic Project officially begun, Saleh was halfway to Kenya before he actually found out that the filter worked. The official lab tests caught up to Saleh — and the two other U of A students accompanying him — in the Middle East. “We were in Dubai when we got the results,” says Saleh. What they learned was that the tests conducted in Alberta’s Provincial Laboratory for Public Health showed that the filters cleaned 100 percent of E.coli and fecal bacteria from river water. “It was a very happy occasion,” he says, “the results were unprecedented.”
They also made a believer out of U of A biology professor — and winner of the University of Alberta Cup, the U of A’s highest academic honour — Mike Belosevic. It was Belosevic who gave Saleh and three other students access to a research lab, after they’d recruited a local potter, Lorris Williams, to help create their filter.
Saleh recalls that Belosevic “was very skeptical of what we were trying to do. Even so, he understands this kind of research too well. He’s also always pushing us to think about the next step, the next level, and to answer the next question, like, ‘Where are the bacteria going?’ and ‘How does the efficacy change with regular use?’”
Saleh became interested in the topic of clean water while researching HIV transmission rates from breast milk in Ecuador, which lead to the question of why women were breastfeeding if they have HIV. It boiled down to the fact that the possible risk of HIV was less threatening than the immediate risk of dysentery.
“Even if these mothers could buy formula,” he says, “they’d still have to mix it with water. Children die faster from diarrheal diseases than they will from HIV, so women take the chance of giving their child HIV over definitely giving them diarrhea.”
Left to right: U of A medical students Tyler van Mulligen, Abraam Isaac and Abdullah Saleh
That’s what prompted Saleh to start looking at water filtration methods. And when he came to the U of A he joined forces with fellow medical students Abraam Isaac and Tyler van Mulligen, ’05 BSc(Pharm), to come up with their unique filter system. And although the good news the trio received last year in Dubai was a welcome relief, they still had yet to face the on-the-ground reality in Kenya. Once there the team faced a multitude of challenges, from locating the right kind of clay and organic materials necessary, to building a kiln from scratch. “And we’re med students,” says Saleh. “We don’t know anything about building kilns.&rdquo
But, after seven weeks, the students managed to arrange for a local sugar factory to provide all the necessary organic temper materials. “It’s a waste product from their production, completely renewable and completely free. We found sources of clay from a village of potters and now we have a preliminary workshop set up,” says Saleh, adding that UNICEF has bought into the project.
Meanwhile, Belosevic is still pushing the Kenya Ceramic Project members to examine every angle of their project. “There needs to be an educational component that goes along with the distribution of the filters themselves,” says Bilosevic. “People who use them need to know that the contaminants become concentrated in the filter over time. They need to know how to properly dispose of materials that could become a biohazard. But I am quite impressed by the results. It worked better than I expected.”
He’s also impressed with Saleh and the others behind the Kenya Ceramic Project, which became a team of 10 on the ground in Kenya this year. “They are amazing ambassadors for the U of A,” he says. “Everywhere they go, with everyone they talk to, they tell people they’re from the University of Alberta. They are remarkable group, and this is an exemplary initiative.”
For more info on the Kenya Ceramic Project go to www.kenyanceramics.org.