Accessing clean water is a challenge during a natural disaster as an increased presence of bacteria, chemicals, livestock waste and other impurities may lead to contamination. Consuming impure water may cause a fast-spreading outbreak of disease and worsen the crisis by threatening human health. Apart from impurities, there may be disruptions or unavailability of potable water as well.
Hence, it becomes an utmost priority to arrange clean water as the first response to disaster management.
While many NGOs and disaster relief efforts provide packaged drinking water to those affected by disasters, the situation demands a stable and lasting solution, as it takes weeks or months to restore the water supply. Moreover, the use of package water creates the issue of plastic waste simultaneously.
And Pune-based company Aquaplus Water Purifiers (Pvt) Ltd, is serving precisely this cause through their unique water purification systems that have provided much-needed relief in over 50 natural disasters in the past 17 years.
Purifying water without power
However, the company never intended to cater the disaster relief efforts. In fact, its beginnings were quite simple, beginning when an engineering student dropped out.
Speaking with The Better India, Rahul Pathak, the founder of the company, says, “I was pursuing engineering from Pune where I realised that the field lacks the application of logic. I felt that the calculations and theories made the problems more complex with difficult solutions.”
Rahul says engineering requires 60 per cent common sense and 40 per cent technical knowledge. “I realised that the experiments and theorems would not benefit the society at large, but addressing the problem statement using a logical framework and arriving at simple solutions would serve a better purpose,” he adds.
In 1993, he quit academics and decided to market water purifiers. “My inspiration came from a business my father pursued. He used to manufacture and sell filters using ceramic technology that had industrial applications for automobile manufacturing companies. However, the recession in the 90s impacted the business, and his marketing strategies did not conceive results,” he says.
His father suggested that Rahul improve his own marketing skills, and thus he entered the business of selling the water filters.
In 1994-95, he set up the company and eventually learned to make the filters himself. “I was marketing domestic water filters and decided to scale up and enter the commercial space by selling industrial units. However, many companies were working on the same. The concept of membrane filters used in water filters was also becoming common. I had to come up with a unique product to stand out from the competition. Hence, I decided to create mobile water filters,” he recalls.
Rahul adds that the water filters have a membrane, a thin paper sheet, enabling four stages of water purification. They are microfiltration, ultra-filtration, nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. “These processes ensure purification of 99 per cent of water by cleaning out bacteria, viruses, germs, salinity, minerals and other unwanted products,” he says.
Earlier, the membranes were imported from China. But over the years, he learned how to produce membranes and even built a machine with scientists at The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), making it entirely indigenous.
The first opportunity to use the water filters arrived in 2005 during the Jammu-Kashmir earthquake, when Rahul and his team reached the disaster spot to assist the defence officials in relief efforts. “We offered to donate the water filters to the army as portable water filters were a new concept. The army agreed to use them and set them up in Uri and Tangdhar areas in relief camps,” he says.
It was the first time that the unique filters came to be of use in disaster relief and caught the attention of Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (REDR), a group of engineering professionals, volunteering for the relief efforts. “They registered the filter among the list of items needed for disaster relief. Later, some experts from OXFAM, an international organisation working in Water Sanitation Hygiene (WASH), approached us and requested we develop a water filter that could purify 4,000 litres in an hour,” he adds
“The mobile water filters were useful to such an extent that they were then used in multiple flood relief efforts in the remotest parts of Bihar. Impressed by the efficiency, OXFAM started placing orders and exported it to the UK,” he says.
Rahul says that the company worked closely with the experts to modify the water filters required according to Sphere Handbook, which came out as a collaborative effort of different NGOs advising minimum standards of supply in disaster relief. However, his efforts to upgrade and improve the portability of filters never stopped.
“After years of constant innovation and using techniques, we have created affordable, portable, low maintenance and efficient water filters that can reach remote parts of the country and purify water without the need for electricity,” he says. “The filters have a membrane of 0.01 microns, which cleans water using gravity, hand pump or fuel-driven motor depending on the availability of the resources. There are four models of water filters with different purifying capacities.”
Rahul says that the model named AP700CL was developed during Uttarakhand flash floods, making it convenient to carry in mountainous areas. It has proved to be a game-changer during multiple national disasters. “It can purify 7,000 litres of water in 10 hours and has been installed in 1,500 locations during the flash floods of Uttarakhand, Jammu, Kerala, Assam and Chennai floods,” he says.
Sarbjit Singh Sabota, an emergency specialist at United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), says that the water filters have been crucial in helping people access clean drinking water. “The water filters are easy to carry due to less weight, effective in emergency cases, accessible and come with different purifying capacities,” he says.
He adds that the hand pump feature is vital in emergencies where there is no availability of electricity from fuel operated generators. “UNICEF has used about 200 water filters during the floods and cyclones in Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal and other states,” he says.
Another unique aspect of the water filter is that it costs less compared to the competitors. Rahul says that the innovative filters cost 1/3rd the amount compared to the conventional filters found with competitors. The technology developed and built by the company makes them low-cost, and we believe in making ethical profits. We want to earn money for sustenance and help the maximum number of needy,” he adds.
The unique water filters have also proven useful in other countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Lagos, Fiji islands, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and others, providing safe drinking water to millions of people during natural disasters.
Making a global mark
Watch Rahul Pathak demonstrating the functioning of the AP700 CL water purifier.
Sharing his challenges, Rahul says that reaching far off places with poor road connectivity, estimating needs and anticipating the intensity of the crisis always pose a challenge. “Besides, collaborating with the locals or organisations for the task to offer speedy help is another difficulty,” he says.
He says that running a company with no experience in business also posed a challenge for the first generation entrepreneur. “Banks are not confident to provide the loan. Moreover, my business was not a startup or an app that could lure venture capitalists,” he says.
He feels that water filters should become a part of the disaster management protocol and be installed at potential locations. “There are certain parts of the country where floods are an annual event, and pre-positioning such filters will give an edge in crisis management instead of waiting for the disaster to happen and then release the help,” Rahul says.
He says the plans are to make water filters and products competitive to global markets and ensure that an Indian product reaches most of the disaster relief works in the world.
To contact Rahul Pathak or know more about the company, click here.
Edited by Divya Sethu