Technology: A simple alternative

27 August 2004
The principle of obtaining clean water through evaporation is so simple, it is surprising there are so few cheap and reliable products available on the market. Military organisations such as NATO and a number of international aid agencies employ small portable stills in their front-line operations, but most of these are built of cheap materials, are unreliable and have a short shelf-life.

It is a problem that German designer Stephan Augustin set out to address in the late 1990s, when he came up with the idea of a basic distillation unit known as the Watercone. Made from tough, UV-resistant polycarbonate, it is a simple still which, left out in the sun, can produce up to 1.6 litres of distilled water a day from the salty or brackish water poured into its base. Marketing the product has proved hard, but it is rapidly gaining an international audience. The Watercone is shortlisted for the Federal Republic of Germany's national design award, which was due to be awarded on 27 August.

A two-month trial was conducted in Yemen last year by the local office of the UK's Care International, which used 100 watercones to supply drinking water for two rural villages. 'There has been talk of conducting a follow-up project, as we have identified a few areas that need to be addressed such as training, and we would have liked to do a year-long trial,' says Jonathan Puddifoot of Care. 'But it certainly works. It would be ideal for a refugee situation, as you can set it up and start generating water in five minutes flat. You are not going to solve the water supply problems of a nation, but for a field hospital or an emergency response unit in, say, Darfur, it would be great.'

Prototypes of the Watercone were produced by Cologne-based manufacturer Zeltec in 2003, and manufacturing and distribution rights have since been acquired by Germany's Discobed, which specialises in equipment for emergency response units. Discobed is currently working on attracting backers for the project.

'The main problem is that the each Watercone costs Eur 99, and even then we are working with tiny margins, as the cost of the polycarbonate is about Eur 60,' says Mirco Richardson, who joined Discobed as marketing manager after working on the project in its early stages. 'These are high-tech materials and Germany is one of the few countries in the world with the technology to use them. The Watercone is built like a Humvee, so it can last for at least five-seven years. Considering the price, we have to rely on aid organisations or investors taking on the burden of the costs, as the people who need them most simply can't afford them.'

The Watercone could find a home in a number of areas in the Middle East, say its developers, particularly in supplementing household drinking water supplies in the poorest parts of the region. 'We have always made it clear that this technology is not supposed to be a solution, but analternative,' says Richardson. 'You have to ask yourself, why shouldn't we be able to drink water from the Dead Sea? Why set up a billion-dollar desalination plant, with all the environmental problems it entails, when you can float a string of 10 or 20 cones on the seashore and provide a family with all the clean water it needs?'

Digby Lidstone

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