Mom’s Illness Inspires IIT-Madras Students to Invent Low-Cost Safe Water Device

Measuring Water Contamination

Developed by students at IIT-Madras, Saaf water™ is an AI-IoT platform designed to regularly monitor the groundwater and effectively communicate that information — not just to the authorities, but to the community as well.

In December 2020, the mother of Hrishikesh Bhandari, a data science student studying an online degree programme at IIT Madras, fell severely ill after unknowingly consuming contaminated water sourced from her village’s public groundwater-powered pump in Uttara Kannada, Karnataka. Hospitalised till March 2021, she is still undergoing treatment. (Image above of Hrishikesh Bhandari and Satyam Prakash)

Concerned about similar instances of water contamination in other parts of rural India, Hrishikesh reached out to his batchmate Satyam Prakash. They discussed the problem and identified that not knowing the quality of water and appropriate purification methods is a major challenge compared to accessibility to different types of purifiers.

“Since approximately half, the world’s population is still dependent on groundwater, that’s where we felt that there is a genuine need for a system that regularly monitors and pre-warns about anomalies or degradation in groundwater not just to the authorities but to the entire community around it. Physical, chemical and biological contamination of groundwater has led to 1 in 3 people globally not having access to safe drinking water, as per a UNICEF and WHO report in 2019. Consumption of contaminated water leads to numerous health complications from dysentery to severe kidney damage,” says Hrishikesh, in a conversation with The Better India.

One of the most significant problems is the lack of frequent monitoring and its communication about the degradation of a water source. That’s why they developed Saaf water™, a device that not just regularly monitors groundwater but also informs the community about the degradation and the purification methods to improve it. All this is done so that people in a given community consume ‘Saaf’ (Saaf in Hindi means clean) water.

“Saaf water™ is an AI-IoT platform designed to regularly monitor the groundwater and effectively communicate that information — not just to the authorities, but to the community as well. The Saaf water™ platform comprises hardware and the dashboard both connected via a backend on IBM Cloud. The hardware is a cellular-enabled, low powered, plug and play unit which checks for different water parameters and sends it to the IBM Watson IoT Platform. This data is then analysed by our ML (machine learning) model, which is then saved in IBM Cloudant NoSQL Database followed by delivery of the water quality indicators and the purification methods required to our user-friendly dashboard,” explains Satyam.

In case of any cellular disconnection, the hardware is capable of analysing water quality offline. “Once installed, Saaf water™ would make water quality information along with appropriate purification methods accessible to everyone. At the end of the day, it’s about allowing people to make informed decisions about water consumption. This information is accessible on the website along with that of people around the village who get a direct SMS about the anomalies in the water, purification method and notifications to go for lab tests,” he adds.

“People generally go for laboratory (lab) tests when they get the suspicion that disease or mortality is caused by water contamination. Lab tests are time-consuming taking almost 24 to 48 hours and access to lab tests is also a problem in rural areas. During this period countless people consume contaminated water from water sources. This rate of fatalities goes on increasing. But, if a system like Saaf water™ is installed, communities get pre-warned about the degradation and appropriate purification methods thus avoiding fatalities and encouraging prompt actions. Our platform takes 2-5 minutes to estimate the possibility of contamination, although we do not claim to be a replacement for lab tests. We plan to extend the reach of Saaf water™ to all the needy locales around the globe because 1/3rd of the world’s population do not have access to safe drinking water to solve this unsolved problem of water contamination,” explains Hrishikesh.

Saaf Water Device
Saaf Water Device

Arriving at a solution

The team behind Saaf water™ is more than just Hrishikesh and Satyam. It includes Sanket Marathe (AITD, Goa), Manikanta Chavvakula (FLAME University) and Jay Aherkar (Class XII pass out), who bring different skill sets to the table from programming, business development and innovation. They have known each other since 2018. But it was sometime in March 2021 when this team of students initiated a conversation about the incident regarding the former’s mother and conversed about the problem and scale.

In June 2021, they started with user-driven ideation and system design of Saaf water™ and they completed the MVP (minimum viable product) stage of the platform by July 2021.

“We then further refined our product, fixed power isolation problems and various software bugs in the next months. In November, from 500,000 developers and across 180 nations, a panel of some of the most eminent leaders in sustainability, business, and technology, including former US President Bill Clinton, awarded Saaf water™ – First Indian team, as the Grand Winner of the Call For Code Global Challenge 2021, with a prize of $200,000 and deployment support from IBM, Call for Code and its partners. And with that spirit we further initiated communication with various stakeholders in December 2021,” claims Satyam.

Saaf water™ platform has three major components:

  • Detection of water quality using cellular-enabled, low powered hardware devices.
  • Analytics that help Team Saaf water™ to identify various physical, chemical and biological patterns or anomalies present in water.
  • Communication to coordinate this crucial information to all needy locales in an effective manner keeping accessibility in mind.

Having said that, there were many challenges during the development process ranging from ensuring better power isolation for different sensors to understanding which libraries are and aren’t compatible with their hardware and fix routing issues after deployment. The Developer and Open source community played a key part in helping them solve these problems.

Screenshot of Saaf Water Dashboard
Screenshot of Saaf water™ Dashboard

“Individuals in our team have proven experience in innovation in areas of smart mobility, agri-tech, water, and healthcare. Our spirit of problem-solving is further moulded by various programs and internships at IBM and Dell technologies India during our high school along with opportunities to showcase our work at national and international arenas like NITI Aayog, India Singapore Business Summit, Indo Russia Innovation, and Research Delegation at Sochi, Russia, and New Delhi. And our past products have been recognised for top six innovations for the Atal Tinkering Marathon 2017, a nationwide student innovation competition by NITI Aayog, and individuals in our teams have also made web solutions like www.coronatracker.in, which served over 19 million users around the world,” claims Satyam.

Their work was also recently mentioned in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’. Team Saaf water™ will soon launch its product in the market after various field trials and full fledged deployments. “We’ll notify the community about product launch via our website (www.saafwater.com) and social media (Twitter @saafwater),” notes Hrishikesh.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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