by Anna Gawel
Coca-Cola is taking its mission to quench the world’s thirst to a whole new level, supporting technology that could turn raw sewage into clean drinking water.
The world’s largest beverage company is teaming up with DEKA Research and Development and its president, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter, to bring Kamen’s “Slingshot” water purification system to developing communities that lack access to potable water.
The partnership is part of Coca-Cola’s larger sustainability push, which includes a goal to replenish 100 percent of the water used in its beverages and their production by 2020.
An intriguing partnership of a different kind brought the story of Slingshot to the diplomatic community in Washington, D.C.
Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan opened up his stately residence for a presentation on the project, co-hosted by Monaco’s ambassador, Gilles Noghès. Monaco supports various water initiatives through the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, which aims to protect the environment and encourage sustainable development.
In a testament to the power of personal connections, Tan learned about Slingshot from Noghès’s wife Ellen, who’s active in supporting breast cancer awareness and other causes (also see “Monaco’s Ellen Noghès Forms Cancer Support Group for Diplomatic Spouses” in the November 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“When I first heard about this great invention called Slingshot from my friend Ellen, I couldn’t believe it was possible to turn dirty water into clean drinking water and I had to see it for myself,” Tan told guests at the Dec. 5 reception. “So I invited my dear friend Muhtar to participate by hosting this event.”
Muhtar would be Muhtar Kent, the Turkish-American chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Co., who told the group through a video message that he believed Slingshot would be “transformational in improving the health and quality of life of people around the world.”
“Water is becoming a scarce, valuable commodity. Today, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water,” Kent said. “Water is the lifeblood of our business and our commitment is to ensure we’re doing our part to replenish the water we use and give it back to communities around the world.”
To that end, Beatriz Perez, Coca-Cola’s first-ever chief sustainability officer and a 16-year veteran of the company, was on hand to explain how the iconic brand was working to promote “water, women and well being.”
For instance, one initiative, called 5by20, seeks to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020, joining forces with UN Women and numerous government and private sector partners on three continents. Since 2005, Coca-Cola has also conducted nearly 400 community water projects in more than 90 countries, working hand in hand with partners such as the World Wildlife Fund, USAID and CARE.
Likewise, Slingshot is a multi-pronged collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank Group, Africare and, of course, Kamen’s research company.
Though the match between Kamen’s water purification system and the beverage giant seems like a natural fit, it took years for the pieces to come together. “I think I brought it to Coke after I exhausted every other possibility,” Kamen joked.
In fact, the prolific American inventor — who, in addition to the Segway scooter, is the brainchild behind the insulin pump and portable dialysis machine — didn’t even set out to create a water purifying system.
His original intention a decade ago was to create a kidney dialysis machine that could sit at the home bedside of patients with renal failure to improve their quality of life. Such machines though need highly sterilized, medical-grade water every day to operate.
So Kamen set about constructing a machine that could turn tap water into medical-grade water — and soon realized that his innovation had much broader applications.
“Besides helping a few thousand people have a better quality of life, it could help a few billion people dying of [waterborne] diseases,” Kamen said.
But he still faced the problem of how to deliver this technology to the remote, rural parts of the world that needed it the most.
Kamen explained that many of his traditional corporate partners operated in countries that could afford sophisticated medical products — where safe drinking water was not an issue.
He finally, and fortuitously, stumbled onto Coca-Cola, which was eager to raise its environmental profile and, more importantly, had a presence in more than 200 nations around the world.
Kamen explained that Slingshot derives its name from the simple but effective weapon that David used to defeat Goliath. “It’s a little machine you can put anywhere and it can turn any kind of water into clean, safe drinking water,” he said.
Slingshot boils and evaporates any dirty water source — ocean water, river water, raw sewage, even arsenic-tainted water — and, through vapor-compression distillation, allows the pure water to condense and then be collected.
According to a Coca-Cola press release, one machine can purify up to 300,000 liters of water a year — enough daily drinking water for roughly 300 people — producing 10 gallons of clean water an hour while consuming less than one kilowatt of electricity, less than the amount of power needed for a handheld hairdryer.
Technology to convert unusable water into safe water has been the gold standard in addressing the looming water scarcity crisis. Kamen says his portable, low-energy machine — one of many variants on the market — is not a panacea. It is targeted for people with limited access to water and not intended to take the place of major water plants or other infrastructure. And although it only requires a small amount of energy to run, it still requires electricity, whether plugged into a local grid or powered by some other source — something not all communities have.
Kamen is also working with the communities to ensure that locals — not foreigners — are able to operate the machines. And he’s been working with Coca-Cola to scale up the technology while lowering its costs.
“For years we looked for a partner who could help us get the Slingshot machine into production, scale it up, bring down the cost curve, and deliver and operate the units in the places where the need is greatest,” Kamen said. “Now we have that partner with Coca-Cola, which brings unparalleled knowledge of working, operating and partnering in the most remote places of the world.”
In 2011, the company held a successful field trial of Slingshot at five schools outside Accra, Ghana, generating 140,000 liters of clean drinking water for 1,500 school children over a six-month span.
In 2013, the plan is to deliver millions of liters of clean drinking water to schools, health clinics and community centers in rural regions of Africa and Latin America — with the ultimate goal of adding more than half a billion liters of clean drinking water to the global water supply each year.
Though Slingshot is still in the early stages of mass distribution, hopes are high that the little machine can put a dent in a huge crisis.
Even though more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, only 1 percent of it is ready to drink, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes.
In fact, almost one fifth of the world’s population (about 1.2 billion people) live in areas where water is physically scarce. One quarter of the global population also live in developing countries that face water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure to fetch water from rivers and aquifers, according to WHO.
The problem will only get worse with the unpredictable weather patterns spawned by climate change. The State Department predicts that by 2025, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living under water-stressed conditions, including roughly 2 billion people who will face absolute water scarcity.
Water scarcity touches on everything from international relations — conflicts typically erupt over access to resources — to women’s rights, because it’s often women and girls who spend hours each day collecting water, foregoing other economic and education opportunities.
Tackling water scarcity will require imagination and collective action, according to Coca-Cola’s chief. “Our sustainability initiatives have reinforced over and over again our belief in the power of collaboration,” Kent said. “Global challenges like water scarcity are bigger than any one company or organization and require us to think and partner beyond our own circles. Only through collective action and innovation will we achieve results where it’s most important.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is the managing editor for The Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.