Thomas Boving, associate professor of geosciences, is one of just 22 grant winners from 13 countries selected from a record pool of 2,900 applicants for a total of $4 million in funding. The World Bank’s Global Development Marketplace and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are the funding agencies.
The URI scientist’s project will use a low-cost, easy to replicate approach of treating polluted surface water with riverbank filtration wells. A pilot site will be established in Karnataka, India, where small private sector providers will be shown how to build a business around the design, installation and operation of the filtration systems. The project expects to provide access to safe drinking water to more than 5,000 people.
“The Kali River in southern India is very polluted, so if the locals rely on water from the river to drink, they get sick,” said Boving, who lives in Hope Valley, R.I. “If they rely on existing wells for their water, they typically must carry the water long distances and the wells often go dry. Riverbank filtration wells, however, make use of the natural filtration capacity of the sediments underlaying the river and produce water without contaminants.”
In India, water-borne disease accounts for 21 percent of all communicable diseases and results in 1,600 deaths each day. To sustain its rapidly expanding economy, India will need to improve its drinking water treatment and distribution infrastructure.
Beginning next fall, Boving will survey local residents about water needs and related issues, as well as track infection rates from water-borne diseases. He will then identify several potential sites at which to install riverbank filtration wells.
“We’ll drill the wells near the river, and the pump will force the water to flow into the well through natural sediments that will clean it of pathogens,” Boving explained. “To ensure that the water is cleaned thoroughly, it should take about 20 days for the water to travel from the river to the well. The exact location of the wells – how far away from the river to put them — will be determined by the geology.”
According to Boving, riverbank filtration wells are proven systems that are more reliable and user friendly than other available treatment options because of their simplicity and because they do not rely on chemicals. They also can be used adjacent to almost any river.
The two-year project is designed to create jobs and self-sustaining businesses. Boving and a local collaborator will train local residents to operate the wells and monitor them for pathogens. The challenge, he said, will be to impose a Western business model on an Indian culture.
The World Bank project builds on a related effort Boving and his partners are currently undertaking in western Jordan, which is funded by a NATO grant. There they are using a similar approach, though the water issues in the dry Middle East are quite different from that of monsoon-dominated southern India.
“What is really needed in both of these locations — and in many, many other places in the developing world in coming decades — is new sources of clean drinking water,” Boving said. “Clean water has to be cheap, and it has to be easy for the people to access, or it won’t work. There also must be local control, and the water supply must be sustainable. With the World Bank funding, we aim to provide the people in our study area with exactly that.”
URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography