Winner: Individual Commitment, David Manz
Enterprising humanitarian David Manz has turned an ancient, environmentally friendly technology into a modern life-saver in regions where clean water is scarce
by Anh Chu
“This is filter land,” says David Manz, gesturing around a tiny room in his inconspicuous lab near Calgary’s Stampede Grounds. About 100 square feet in total, the place is filled with tools of his trade: different sized white plastic buckets and bags of sand and crushed rock waiting to be assembled into working prototypes. Sitting on a desk are test runs: four glasses of what looks like watered-down apple juice.
“We’re examining the filter for its ability to remove iron and manganese from water,” Manz explains. He’s talking about the BioSand Water Filter (BSF). The technology’s simple name, much like this benign room, belies its astounding ability to create safe drinking water, thereby reducing disease, particularly gastrointestinal illnesses, in the world’s most disadvantaged communities. For more than 20 years its refinement has ranked amongst his top priorities. Now, as a professional engineer, agrologist, water treatment expert, consultant and sometime professor of climate change at the University of Calgary, Manz’s determination to provide global access to clean water has earned him a 2009 Emerald Award in the category of Individual Commitment.
Dating back at least to the ancient Greeks, gravity-driven sand filters were considered a “dead” technology offering little potential for improvement and innovation. But, thanks to Manz’s engineering mind, a trip funded by the Canadian International Development Agency in 1988 to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, along with another to the Philippines a year later, proved fateful.
“I found out what it really meant to have no access to safe water in a developing country,” explains Manz. For one thing, political instabilities made travelling to obtain clean water dangerous. For another, boiling water was often prohibitively expensive; chlorine, a common Western disinfectant, was considered poison. After Manz noticed that people were open to using sand filters, he decided to pursue design improvements.
In 1991, while professor of environmental engineering at the U of C, Manz advised grad student David Lee towards a prototype of a household sand filter. It needed to fit into a home and work on demand, unlike prior designs that required continuous operation or risked becoming inoperable by drying out. Manz bankrolled the prototype, essentially a green garbage can with a tap protruding from its base. The rest is the stuff of science – and humanitarian – lore.
“We might have invested 75 bucks in this project, but the results were wonderful,” he recalls. Certainly it seemed too good to be true. Practically, the BSF was bang-on – inexpensive (even by developing-world standards), easy to produce and maintain, with up to 99% efficacy. Environmentally, it was ahead of its time in terms of sustainability, producing no wastewater, requiring no chemicals, no replacement parts and no energy to operate.
The profundity of his discovery soon took over. Ever since, Manz has felt a moral responsibility to widely distribute the BSF. The first uses were strictly humanitarian, made from concrete and locally available materials. A pilot project in Nicaragua cemented the filter’s effectiveness when the test community of 50-plus households was cholera-free – the only one in the country at the time.
The filter works because of a bio-layer of organisms that forms on top of the sand particles and eats offending pathogens. (“Like little Pac-men?” I ask. Manz reacts like a pleased teacher: “Yes!”) Just recently, his hypothesis that this layer was responsible for cleansing the water was verified by an independent study in South Africa, where the idea for the BSF was conceived.
Later, the filter’s success led to the creation of Davnor Water Technologies Ltd., a commercial arm for the BSF and a licensee of the technology then owned by the University of Calgary. After the company made inroads with North American rural homes and some community projects, it dissolved in 2004, allowing Manz to purchase the technology from the university and start Pure Filtered Water Ltd., of which he’s now co-owner.
Now that Pure Filtered Water holds the patent and rights to the BSF – “I’m like a proud but very protective father,” Manz says – licensees around the world pay for the right to use the technology commercially. The plastic filter can be produced and distributed locally, contributing to local economies. While many NGOs use the technology in a humanitarian capacity, Manz – despite sometimes teaching communities how to build the devices on their own – sees commercialization and the humanitarian operations as interminably linked.
“The commercialization is how the technology is going to be disseminated,” says Manz, noting that the efficiencies of local commercial production will make the BSF affordable. “There’s a misperception that poor people don’t have money – they do and they will use it to buy a filter,” explains Manz.
The future is looking promising as huge licensee deals are in the works with Ireland, China and Columbia. The BSF spawned innovations in a “big brother filter” for larger-scale projects. And as a businessman, Manz admits to wanting to profit off of his technology.
“I’m a total believer in capitalism,” he says, admiring the entrepreneurial spirit required for a successful business. Although Manz estimates that 50,000 to 75,000 BSFs were sold in 2008, there is still much work to be done. “I won’t be satisfied until I sell millions of filters a year.”