Future Perfect

The democratization of water

Girl drinking water from the FreshWater device in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. | Photo (CC BY-SA): FreshWater

The democratization of water

Three Chilean engineers developed FreshWater, a domestic appliance. It could grant millions of Latin Americans autonomous access to safe drinking water.

FreshWater can be installed anywhere, unrestricted by geography or climate. Even in a hostile climate such as that of the Atacama desert in Chile, one of the driest places on Earth, a FreshWater device can produce up to nine litres of water a day, and 32,000 during its operating life of 10 years. In coastal regions, it can deliver up to 30 litres a day, using only a battery or electrical connection. To operate, it recreates the natural water cycle: a tank about 100 centimetres high traps steam and creates a cloud that then cools to cause rainfall. From there, a processor channels the water to separate tanks for filtering, purifying and sterilising. The result: water that is completely free of sodium, heavy metals, fluoride or preservatives, at a cost of 3 cents per litre.

The creators of FreshWater did not invent the technology. Instead, they optimised it. It all began in 2010 when forestry engineer Héctor Pino needed 100 per cent sodium-free water for his daughter who was suffering from kidney problems. He investigated and came across military dehumidifier systems. This inspired him to contemplate how this technology could be applied in the domestic sphere, ideally in a simple, cheap and sustainable system. To this end, he joined forces with Carlos Blamey, a submarine engineer, and Alberto González, an industrial designer with aeronautics experience, and after a phase of research and testing, they succeeded in creating the first FreshWater prototype in 2013.


  • The device placed in the desert of Atacama, Chile. | Photo (CC BY-SA): FreshWater

  • Workshop on how to create the FreshWater equipment in Cachiyuyo, Atacama Region, Chile |Photo (CC BY-SA): FreshWater


Responsible communities

It was only when they had produced this first device, which they described “as a Frankenstein monster”, that this trio of creative engineers realised their product’s tremendous potential. Even today in Chile there are 40,000 communities, mostly in rural areas, with no access to drinking water. And throughout Latin America, it is calculated, 34 million people are living in the same situation. “We wanted to democratise access to this vital resource, take it out to remote places where it is scarce”, explains Pino. For this, they had to improve the design of the FreshWater system itself. That’s how they came to build an easy-to-maintain device resembling a washbasin with a tap. “When we tested it in areas such as Petorca, in the Fifth Region of Chile, we found that we couldn’t supply these isolated communities with anything too technical. No one would understand it or use it. It took years to come up with the present design,” comments Pino. It was only in late 2015 that the team was able to launch it commercially.

After the initial tests, the designers joined forces with the Chilean NGO Socialab, which supports sustainable, ground-breaking enterprises. Socialab is also seeking to design a new socio-economic model, and FreshWater fits into this plan, with the aim of introducing the system to various places across Chile, as well as to other countries. “We want to take it to La Guajira in Colombia and Chaco province in Argentina”, Héctor Pino points to the vision of improving access to clean water for the sake of the health of hundreds of people.

However, it is not just a matter of traveling to these places to install the technology. According to Héctor Pino, one of the major aspects is the work in the communities, collaboratively creating the mechanism and monitoring consumption patterns before putting FreshWater into operation. He adds, “The device is something easy to use, like a household appliance, not a large, public container, which in the end no one would maintain.”

A complex future

At the moment, the FreshWater appliance costs 1500 US dollars and takes 72 hours to build. The next challenge will be to find a more economic production line. Support for this has already been promised by Start-Up Chile, the SSAF (Subsidio Semilla de Asignación Flexible, a Chilean seed-funding subsidy) and from Corfo (Corporación de Fomento a la Producción, a Chilean business promotion association), which will contribute funding for testing the system in the Atacama Region.

There are nonetheless many barriers to the enterprise’s development. Although discussions have begun with the Chilean Government, things are moving slowly. According to Pino, “there is a covert water war being fought in this country. Among others, the protagonists are the owners of tanker lorries which visit the isolated areas. As we are breaking their mould and their business, it is costing us to make progress. We are an alternative market, and we want it to turn into a global solution. People’s eyes light up when we tell them that they can have clean water at the touch of a button. This is so encouraging; it makes all the effort worthwhile.”

    About

    December 2015
    Food & Drink
    Chile, San Pedro de Atacama

    FreshWater
    Socialab
    Start-Up Chile

    Author

    Daniela Silva Astorga
    is a journalist specialising in visual arts, contemporary dance and museums. In 2013 she was awarded the Gabriel García Márquez scholarship for Cultural Journalism by the FNPI. She works for the Chilean daily El Mercurio.

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