Since 2005, LifeStraw, billed as “cheap, portable personal water purifier,” has been picking up awards; Esquire said it was an innovation of the year in 2005, Time called it the “best invention of the year,” Gizmag, without any contrition, called it the “invention of the century” and Forbes called it “one of the 10 things that will change the world” in 2006. The “straw” is a long blue tube that “provides access to safe drinking water by converting microbiologically contaminated water into safe drinking water.” Publicity images of it show black Africans, sometimes half naked, bending over to drink purified water through it. Paul Hetherington, a spokesman for WaterAid in the UK, claimed “it is something that may well have very useful applications in an emergency scenario. But it’s not a development tool, it doesn’t really solve the problem of getting water to people.”
Innovative devices like LifeStraw aren’t created with malicious intent, nor are they necessarily ineffective; many work perfectly fine. But let’s look at the images again; young, half-naked Africans hip deep in a pool of water, stooping to drink the water through one of these devices.
When Europeans or Westerners travel to countries with sub-standard water, they sometimes bring water filtration systems, tablets or other means to purify water. We don’t see pictures of them bending over streams, cow-like, drinking water through LifeStraws. High-tech straws are not suggested as a means to solving filtration problems for white people, say, in parts of rural Russia or Romania, where there might be contaminated water, so why are they “good enough” for black Africans? And it isn’t just about straws: the device is emblematic of an entire industry of suddenly popular, quickly forgotten programs and devices that will “save” Africans or “solve” Africa’s problems.
LET’S GO back to the beginning. Lack of access to safe drinking water is a problem. Almost a billion people worldwide are estimated to not have access to safe water; and supposedly around 35 percent of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Basically that means most of Africa doesn’t have access to decent water. That’s a problem. It was also a problem for Europe and the West well into the 20th century. Even today many travelers ponder whether it’s safe to drink tap water in Poland and Ireland. Contaminated water is a global problem, the product of overcrowding and the industrial age. Attempts to address the issue date to the 16th century.
So why is it all the processes that led to safe drinking water in Europe are not seen as workable for Africa? Why is it the “answer” to African problems is always some charity with portable toilets or stoves or some other device – even cardboard bicycles – that no one would ever expect Romanians to use? Google “solve Africa’s drinking water problems” and you come across “a giant basket that uses condensation to gather drinking water.” Looks pretty, next to some grass huts. But they won’t be using that in Nevada. Nope. Just for Africans. Not for Saudis or Kazakhs.
Another website claims to have “15 concepts for providing clean drinking water,” which include a photo of African children who “pump while playing” and another that proposes transforming “sewage to drinking water.” Sounds wonderful. No one expects people in Kansas to drink sewage, but in Malawi it’s a great idea. Another system made by SunDwater uses a “green…
low-cost, low maintenance system that converts dirty or salty water into potable water.” According to a report at Israel21c, it includes a four-square-meter photovoltaic dish (like a satellite dish) and the water is condensed on it. It sounds nice, but it isn’t a real solution; after all, no one is going to be using it in Portugal, so why expect it to be used widely in Uganda? One of the most emblematic symbols of all this was a story in 2013 that “At the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium school in Tel Aviv, 20 ninth and tenth graders are testing the simplest, cheapest and fastest way to solve the problem of malnutrition among their peers around the world.”
In plastic bottles they had bred a bluegreen algae called spirulina, that looked like green slime, and the theory was this would be good for Africa. I have a better idea: serve this in the cafeteria of schools in the wealthy communities of Israel, and if the kids there agree to eat it for a year, then export this idea to Africa. Because if a bunch of nice kids in your community don’t want to eat green algae, don’t expect “Africans” to want to.
Another article discusses “watering the grassroots: Training African women to solve water problems.” Supposedly a “rainwater harvesting system” was launched and “prior to their efforts, these schools were not equipped with water or sanitation facilities – a problem that is all too typical across much of Africa.” Oddly, that wasn’t the solution to China’s drinking- water issues. Just Africa. In China the Ministry of Water Resources estimated that as of 2005 three-hundred million people were unable to access safe drinking water.
Almost 200 million people in rural areas were still exposed to harmful substances.
To combat these problems the government was investing in a massive “11th five year plan” which envisioned plowing $5 billion into safe drinking water. By contrast 334 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were estimated in 2010 to not have access to clean drinking water. That’s roughly the same as in China, yet in China they are digging up rivers, laying pipe and building massive infrastructure projects worth twice the GDP of Malawi to combat this scourge; they are not handing out straws, solar panels and baskets.
Solutions to problems in Africa tend to involve handing out 21st century high-tech gadgets to infrastructure-poor countries that require massive 20th century reforms and solutions. All of the problems Africa faces, whether it is the supposed need for “smokeless stoves” or clean water, are ones every other country in the world faces or has faced. Yet the solution for Africa almost always does not take into account incremental changes that people want; rather they envision some miracle device that “solves all these problems, and would help reach the Millennium Development Goals,” or some foreign imposed solution.
The Western concept of “saving” and “solving” Africa’s problems too often derives from a sub-conscious racist “white man’s burden” mentality, wherein the “starving African” is “saved” by the white man from abroad (Google ‘smokeless stove Africa’ and see the first image). The solutions offered are manifestly inadequate and ridiculous, but serve industries of charity and self-promotion. The legions of nonsensical awards for these inventions are part of this “salvation” culture.
“Saving” Africa, or “building schools in Africa” has nothing really to do with Africa.
That’s why decade after decade, the Western “solutions” to African’s problems don’t solve anything except Western NGO workers’ need for a regular salary.
If you want to save Africa, demand that the technology be exported there to bring it up to European standards. Don’t expect people there to live a life drinking out of straws like cattle and eating algae.
Follow the author on Twitter at @sfrantzman