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Potable and portable

Feature, Geosynthetics | April 1, 2014 | By:

Manufacturers tackle the world’s growing need for safe drinking
water–after disasters, and before.

When a chemical storage tank in West Virginia leaked this past January, 300,000 people were unable to drink water from their taps. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent more than 367,000 gallons of water to the nine-county area; the local water agency provided 12 tanker trucks of water and four tractor-trailer loads of bottled water for distribution to residents.

“You cringe when you see things like that in the news,” says Dan Dwight, president and CEO of Cooley Group, which makes geomembranes for the potable-water marketplace. “Had that chemical company come to us and we had lined the concrete pad that those tanks were sitting on, that chemical would have been contained in the membrane.”

Once the water was contaminated, however, companies like Hydration Technology Innovations (HTI) of Albany, Ore., could provide solutions. Dropped into contaminated water, HTI’s HydroPack filters out dirt, bacteria, viruses and other contaminants.

HTI calculates that its flat, cellulose acetate pouches, which can be air dropped, can reach disaster victims 15 times faster than bottled water based on transportation weight and space. But, “It is hard to compete with bottled water with the logistical delivery capabilities of the National Guard, FEMA and other emergency responders,” says Nathan Jones, vice president of government sales. “If there was an earthquake or hurricane or tornado or other event that compromised the water supply and at the same time disrupted the logistical train for delivery, then our products are ideal.”

Cooley, HTI and other companies make an amazing array of potable-water products that have more potential than is currently being tapped. Many serve humanitarian purposes, providing drinking water in Third World regions. But they also can be invaluable resources in both human-caused and natural disasters.

Containment solutions

Cooley Group, headquartered in Pawtucket, R.I., serves customers in more than 50 countries and six continents—from utilities, municipalities and the military to industrial companies.

“Cooley offers a wide range of geomembrane solutions specifically engineered to meet the exacting technical and performance requirements associated with potable-water applications,” Dwight says. The company’s geomembranes are used not only for primary and secondary containment of hazardous materials and as liners and covers for landfills and reservoirs, but also for flexible water tanks and bladders.

“A significant portion of Cooley’s R & D budget is committed to developing new fabric-based solutions and modifying existing products in order to better cover the full performance and cost spectrum in the potable-water market.” According to Dwight, the two biggest hurdles facing companies that make potable-water products are developing cost-effective solutions for emerging markets that lack vast financial resources; and developing local and regional infrastructures to sell and service products in those emerging markets.

“The end user is most likely not able to pay for the product, thus the burden usually falls on aid organizations, which are hesitant to purchase, especially to pre-position product prior to a disaster,” says HTI’s Jones.

Gavin Hodgins, operations manager for Flexitank (Australia) Pty Ltd, a Melbourne-based manufacturer of potable-water tanks and liners, considers a “race to the bottom” to be a challenge.

“We see competitors who come into our markets based on price alone. This will never work,” he says. “It doesn’t allow an environment to breed where quality is key, and can often mean food-grade fabrics masked as potable fabrics are used instead of true potable fabrics.”

But, Hodgins adds, Flexitank turned the introduction of poor-quality products into an opportunity.

“We now offer the heaviest fabric available (900 grams per square meter) to most consumer markets for water bladders and, by sourcing our fabric locally so we could stock it at lower volumes, we achieved this without having to increase our pricing,” he says.

Access and treatment

Demand for potable-water products has increased dramatically in the past few years, says Alex Johnstone, project manager for Melbourne, Australia-based F CUBED Australia Pty Ltd, which makes Carocell™ solar water-purification panels. The desalinization panels use a viscose nonwoven fabric, Galaxy® from Kelheim Fibres GmbH in Germany, to disperse water and remove contaminants. The panels also function as rain water collectors.

“[Water] treatment methods that require power, chemicals or any parts to be frequently replaced will not suit all markets, so the need for renewable-energy products is becoming increasingly clear,” Johnstone says. “With climate change already affecting coastal regions and their water sources, we foresee an even more rapid increase in demand for these types of products.”

HTI’s Nathan Jones thinks there’s an increasing awareness of the vulnerability of water systems and the importance of being prepared. “Our goal is to have HydroPacks pre-positioned globally for disaster relief,” he says.

“Of the 7 billion people who live on our planet, 2.8 billion live in areas of high water stress,” Dwight says. “The problems of limited sources and access to potable water continue to escalate due to populations growing faster than water sources can be replenished—coupled with climate change and global economic growth. We believe the demand for potable-water products will continue to be strong over the next decade and beyond.”

“The thing that needs focus on the most is getting access to those people that don’t already have water, and educating those that do on conservation and the importance of sustainability,” says Kelsey Langdale, director of PackH2O, which distributes backpacks for transporting water. The Columbus, Ohio-based company puts its efforts into partnering with organizations that bring water access closer to villages.

“Providing support in terms of sanitation is next,” Langdale says. “Then you focus on transporting it home, which is where PackH2O comes in. Obvious regions would include Central and South America, Africa and Asia.”

What’s needed, Johnstone says, are products that are adaptable to changing climate conditions, will not add to carbon pollution, are readily available, and are easy to set up and dismantle, especially for remote areas.

Global efforts, global impact

Among its humanitarian-relief projects, F CUBED has installed more than 300 Carocell panels within salt- and arsenic-affected areas of Bangladesh and sent panels to the Philippines in the wake of last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. Cooley Group provided a reservoir cover in Cape Town, South Africa, to protect potable water against contamination and minimize evaporation.

On the disaster-relief side, Flexitank works primarily with the Australian Agency for International Development, but has also completed projects for the United Nations, including relief efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and the provision of fifty 40,000-liter water bladders after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, as well as delivering water bladders to Arab countries for a backup supply of potable water. Among its regular customers are mining companies that need to secure fresh drinking water for exploratory campsites.

HTI’s HydroPacks were distributed by the Army to victims of the Haiti earthquake and by a Save the Waves Coalition mission to Chile after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Save the Waves used HTI’s backpack hydration system and HydroPacks for its relief team and distributed HydroPacks to children living in the area.

The opportunities for companies making or selling potable-water products are “simply wherever it is needed,” Johnstone says, noting that the difficulty is keeping products cost effective while maintaining high efficiency and usability in remote locations.

PackH2O came about in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake when David Fischer, CEO of industrial packaging company Greif, saw women struggling to carry water in dirty buckets and contaminated jerry cans. Greif invented and manufactures the water backpack. PackH2O works with NGOs, humanitarian organizations, churches and schools to raise awareness and funds for getting the packs into the hands of those with limited access to potable water.

“We did our testing in different regions around Haiti,” Langdale says. PackH2O next joined forces with Habitat for Humanity and Partners for Care to provide more than 10,000 packs to families in Kenya, and has partnered with Habitat for Humanity and Operation Blessing to prepare for disasters. “Stockpiling allows for quicker relief,” Langdale says. “We got very lucky with the typhoon in the Philippines in that Habitat for Humanity had already ordered water backpacks to go into that region. The packs are extremely convenient, especially compared to water bottles.”

“Cooley’s focus is the development of product solutions that cover the full technical performance and cost spectrum,” Dwight says. “A majority of the most arid regions of the world are the least economically developed. Therefore, more cost-effective fabric- and fiber-based technologies need to be developed.

“Because water is a global problem requiring global solutions, there are opportunities for companies to market and sell their products globally,” he continues. “However, selling and servicing those products needs to be managed at the local and regional level. Collaboration with local water authorities all the way to international relief organizations is necessary.”

Dwight notes that Cooley’s focus is becoming more localized. “We are starting to put resources in countries so that we can service both the fabricators and installers better than we do,” he says. “We recently opened an office in Germany to handle the European, Middle Eastern and North African markets.”

As for disaster response, Dwight points out that relief agencies do not keep water bladders in storage in anticipation of an emergency. “They tend to just air freight in or ship in bottled water,” he says. “It’s something we’re looking into. We have the technology and would love to be able to supply them. We want to be a good global corporate citizen.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a San Diego-based writer and editor.

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