Continuing our week-long theme of technology and innovation, today we look at Water Canary: a product designed to assist with the worldwide problem of poor water quality.

Water composes around 70% mass of the body and is an essential and life-sustaining drink to humans. Despite this, approximately a billion people around the world currently drink unhealthy water, which may be polluted by a variety of toxins. Water contaminated in this way can be deadly: an estimated five million people die every year from drinking polluted water. Reduction of waterborne diseases is often a major health goal in areas with this problem; most countries accepted the 2003 G8 Evian summit goal of halving the number of people worldwide without access to safe water by 2015. The main obstacle developing countries encounter when attempting to combat this problem is a lack of infrastructure and technology.

Photo courtesy of Julien Harneis

Water Canary

Water Canary hopes to help with this problem by offering an inexpensive and easy-to-use device that tests water safety at the push of a button. The device collects data on the quality of the water, which can be transmitted and shared with the rest of the world.

This innovative product produces immediate and accurate results, whereas previous models have required at least 24 hours to yield answers which are often varying in accuracy. Real-time information on the quality of water is vital in hazardous situations and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. In the aftermath of such catastrophes, the identification of invisible threats can prevent hazards from spreading and evolving into full-scale emergencies. Contaminated water supplies not only have a direct effect on humans, but can also indirectly affect humans and animals via the pollution of ecosystems.

How does it work?

The Water Canary uses patented spectral technology to test for the presence of disease-causing pathogens in a matter of seconds. The device can then transmit the collected data via GPS using any available wired or wireless network. The real-time data is transferred using companion software to relevant organisations equipped with life-saving water supplies. Multiple formats are used to distribute the data, meaning it is geographically relevant and help can be distributed quickly and effectively in potentially life-threatening situations. As the results are immediate, the cost per test is extremely low compared to current devices used. The Water Canary also requires no education or literacy and minimal training to use, meaning anyone can test the safety of their water.

When can it be used?

The Water Canary can be used in any situation where there is a need for fast and inexpensive testing of water quality. This may be for environmental monitoring, preventive medicine, sanitation education, or emergency preparedness and disaster response.

Following the primary repercussions of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, one of the top priorities for governments and NGOs was to restore access to safe drinking water. Much waste of resources and money occurred due to a lack of accurate information about where exactly help was needed. Unable to accurately identify contaminated water, resources were widely distributed in the hope that some would be used beneficially. This caused waste and shortages of supplies in the places were help was needed the most. In such situations, acting in a timely manner is of the utmost importance: if early decisions are made based on accurate data, time and lives can be saved.

By Denise Bartlett

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