Bringing Safe Water to Rural Peru

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On June 30, we launched a one-year pilot program that uses diluted bleach to disinfect drinking water for four remote villages in Peru. For children in the developing world, unsafe drinking water is a leading cause of intestinal disease, malnutrition and death.

The Clorox Safe Water pilot will provide diluted bleach to disinfect drinking water for four remote villages in Peru. Here, a Clorox volunteer teaches people how to treat their water using public dispensers placed next to community water sources.

Over the years, Clorox has supported a number of programs aimed at stopping the spread of infection, but this is our first time leading an intervention that addresses the chronic issue of unsafe drinking water in underprivileged rural communities. Our goal with this project is to build an effective, scalable and sustainable model that local communities could adopt to improve the quality of their drinking water and reduce the rate of intestinal illness.

Throughout the next seven months, we’ll use this blog to provide updates and discuss what we’re learning from the pilot.

Why bleach?

  • Bleach is powerful – Sodium hypochlorite, the main ingredient in Clorox® bleach, is one of the most effective disinfectants on earth, killing over 99 percent of bacteria and viruses commonly found in untreated water, such as E. coli and cholera.
  • Bleach is inexpensive – Community-based bleach disinfection projects can be scaled with modest resources.
  • Bleach is better than boiling – Germs are easily re-introduced to boiled water, but bleach stands guard for 24 to 48 hours and kills the vast majority of the bad stuff that can infect a water supply.

Past challenges: Changing accepted practices and getting people involved

Of course, creating a sustainable clean water program is much more complex than pouring bleach down a well. Nonprofit organizations have been using bleach to disinfect water in developing countries for a long time, but with mixed success.

Deeply engrained, accepted practices can be difficult to challenge, and when you can’t see germs with the naked eye, the concept of disinfection can be pretty abstract. Also, the dosage must be correct — too little bleach, and you’re not killing the germs, too much, and the water tastes bad and people stop using it. And perhaps most importantly, there must be broad community interest and adoption that includes local champions and promoters to educate people and to manage the dispensers and bleach supply.

Dispensers are filled with a sodium hypochlorite solution and release a metered dose appropriate for a standard water-collection vessel.

Dispensers for safe water: Readily available and easy to use

Our pilot in Peru uses a promising new, high-impact, low-cost approach developed by Dispensers for Safe Water at Innovations for Poverty Action. The program places public dispensers next to community water sources such as wells and boreholes. The dispensers are filled with a sodium hypochlorite solution and release a metered dose appropriate for a standard water-collection vessel.

The dispensers are supported by a sodium hypochlorite supply chain and a community education program that includes a local volunteer promoter who encourages use and maintains and refills the dispenser.

This approach has been used successfully in Kenya and led to a six-fold increase in water treatment with sodium hypochlorite, which was sustained three years after the dispenser was installed. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID have also supported its expansion to other parts of the world.

Using positive peer pressure to encourage healthy habits

A critical success factor seems to be the public nature of the community dispenser. The position of the dispenser at the water source provides a reminder to treat water when it is collected. Also, given the strong social ties in rural communities, seeing others using the dispenser can lead to powerful habit formation around water treatment and encourages peer education about safe water practices.

Over the 12-month pilot, Clorox will test this model in northern Peru, learning about the project’s cultural acceptance and impact alongside our local implementation partner, PRISMA, a research-based nonprofit. PRISMA has a 26-year history of successful community health projects and specializes in interventions that help reduce malnutrition and illness in children under three years old in order to help stop the cycle of poverty.

We visited our Safe Water project communities in November, and we’ll talk about that trip in our next update in a few weeks.