“If you’re doing something worthwhile, chances are you don’t know what you’re doing and nobody can tell you the right way to do it.”
When an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, the world watched in horror. It started at 2:46 in the afternoon and struck in a part of the ocean’s bed which was devastatingly shallow, two hundred and fifty miles to the northeast of Tokyo. Railroad tracks became threads, nuclear facilities became life threatening due to their damage, oil refineries exploded and debris rained down on the shocked people below. As if this disaster weren’t enough, a tsunami soon followed, which made the destruction from the earthquake almost forgotten in comparison.
A river of flaming homes came crashing through a small town while its citizens raced to higher ground, recording the devastation on their smart phones. One photograph stands out vividly. It showed a young woman sitting alone on the ground in torn clothes, her mouth opened in screams of nonacceptance and behind stretched miles and miles of nothing but debris and death. But that was just the beginning of the horrors which Japan was to face.
Millions were left homeless, their loved ones missing, a ship carrying one hundred people simply vanished as if it had never existed and those nuclear power plants began to release life-threatening amounts of radiation which contaminated the food sources, milk and tap water of the broken country. According to The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), by March 20, there were an estimated 1,016,069 people without water and if they found any water, there was no way for them to tell if it was safe to drink.
When disasters such as the Japanese and Haitian earthquakes or others such as Hurricane Katrina strike, everyone’s main concern is usually rescuing survivors and providing shelter for those left without homes. Some may fail to realize the danger that still lurks for those survivors long after the immediate threat has been averted. Illness and death can be lying in wait in something as simple as the drinking water. And just as in under-developed countries, many are left drinking contaminated water that could make them seriously ill or even kill them.
As explained on ‘ted.com’ it is difficult to tell if water is safe to drink after a crisis. The tests that are currently used are slow and very complex…and yet, the delay that this causes can be deadly. A devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti after the earthquake that took place there in 2010 is just one example of such problems. But an entrepreneur by the name of Sonaar Luthra has invented a simple tool that can quickly test water for safety. He calls his creation, “The Water Canary.”
An article posted by Karen Eng on ted.com shares and interview with Luthra. In it, Luthra explains the idea behind his creation, “’So the idea behind the Water Canary was an inexpensive gadget that could instantly tell you whether your water was safe or not with a red light or green light, so you don’t have to be literate to use it. Over time, it occurred to us that what we really had was something that could transform disaster response with real-time information. This was right around the time when the Haiti earthquake happened. In emergencies, the assumption that every aid organization has to make is that all water is unsafe. And that leads to the entire response being completely inefficient. They never really know where help is needed. So it means you end up sending too many supplies to places that don’t need them, and that there’s never enough in areas that do.’”
Luthra and his team worked to expand on the initial idea of the Water Canary, which simply tested for bacteria, and made it so that it can detect nutrient pollution, volatile chemicals and microbiological contaminants. As Luthra went on to share in his interview with Karen Eng, “’The Water Canary uses spectral analysis — essentially shining light through a water sample and measuring what it absorbs — to form conclusions about what’s in the water. It’s fast and uses a microprocessor, so the raw data is captured in the unit, making it easy to transmit in real time. The GPS-tagged data can then be instantly transmitted, so that water safety information can instantly be shared with the world. This makes it possible to quickly identify and respond to hazards — protecting people and the environment and preventing full-scale disasters. Every other effort to link mobile phones to water testing has involved someone entering it into an application. The moment you introduce that step, it’s far less likely that the data will ever be shared, or accurate.’”
Luthra and his team are currently working on getting the device ready for field testing. He is raising the needed funds to make his dream a reality, and doing everything he can to not only build the best device, but the best community as well. He has designed the Water Canary device to be handheld and easy to use, and says, “’I think about Water Canary devices the same way I think of flashlights and smoke detectors: they’re for everyone. Since they’re easy to use and affordable, I don’t see any reason why everyone shouldn’t have them.’”
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