Water is life: Solar-powered desalination in rural India

System designed by Tata Center and MIT Mechanical Engineering researchers brings clean water to off-grid communities.

amos natasha desalination jalgaon

Story by Alissa Mallinson | MIT Mechanical Engineering

“Everyone wants to drink the clean water,” says Shehazvi, a resident of Mhasawad, a village of about 8,400 people that flanks the Girna River in Maharashtra, India. “But what do they do if they can’t afford it? I only get paid 2,000 rupees per month and buying this water has been difficult.”

In order to design a water treatment system that was affordable and would actually work in the context of rural Indian villages, Amos Winter, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and PhD candidate Natasha Wright, a researcher in Winter’s GEAR Lab and a fellow of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design — which supports this and other GEAR Lab projects for the developing world — knew they first had to develop an in-depth understanding of the problem by talking directly to the residents themselves.

“We are in the field every six months trying to figure out how socioeconomic factors influence technical factors,” Winter says. “We walk the lines between product designers, machine designers, ethnographers, and social scientists, and it’s at the convergence of all those perspectives that disruptive new solutions come together.”

In August 2012, Wright travelled to Jalgaon to meet with engineers at Jain Irrigation Systems and partner on the development of a system that would set in motion the company’s dream of providing poor villages in India access to affordable potable water.

The company’s plan was to develop affordable home water systems that would remove the biological contaminants from the water, and Wright’s first two trips to Jalgaon were spent researching which systems were already on the market and how they were working.

“I went to villages and interviewed women’s groups, men’s groups, and individual families,” she says. “I was focused on the removal of biological contaminants and was hearing that a lot of villagers had filters but weren’t using them regularly. I wanted to figure out how to improve the water and increase the likelihood of filter use to prevent sickness.”

“When I reviewed my survey results,” she continues, “I realized that everyone was complaining about salt, even though I never even asked about it. They said it tastes bad, leaves marks on their pots and pans, and makes their stomachs hurt.”

“As outsiders, our motivations are often fueled solely by health concerns,” Winter says. “And of course that is crucial, but you have to remember that villagers have almost always gotten their water for free. So to go to a person and say we want you to pay for water that basically looks and tastes the same — what’s the value added to them? It’s our job to figure out why people would choose to buy clean water and include it in our solution.”

Wright and Winter believe that by designing a community system that can provide tasty, desalinated water at an affordable price, all villagers — especially those who are poorer and tend to drink contaminated, high-saline water on a regular basis — will be more likely to consistently drink water that’s clean and healthy, even if they have to pay for it.

Read the full story on MIT News. Photos and video by John Freidah/MIT