Miracle in the midst of drought?
Chennai-based Felix A. Ryan's innovations have helped many countries improve their drinking water availability. The following is the process he employs...
"IT IS not difficult to get potable water continuously and in any quantity in a coastal city like Chennai," says Dr. Felix A. Ryan, a former United Nations Advisor on Development and Refugee Rehabilitation. He goes on to add "through the simplest method of distillation." This man from Chennai has devised different types of stills to obtain safe drinking water. But, how does this still work? The technique uses the principles of evaporation and condensation to get potable water from salt water, says Dr. Ryan.
The `4-pot-still' can be assembled with earthen pots readily available with the rural poor. Two large sized pots and two small ones are taken. The small ones should go into at least one of the large pots and be placed one on top of the other within the bigger pot that is kept at the bottom. They are set, preferably in the open, on a 3-stone stove (camper's stove). Seawater is poured into the big pot at the bottom to the brim of the small pot placed inside. The small pot at the bottom is filled with mud as insulation and to prevent it from lifting due to buoyancy. Now fill the big pot on top with sea or saline water and light the stove, let it be on low fire. (As firewood is costly, briquettes, made of foliage, crushed like tea leaves and made into lumps with tree gum to bind, can be used for heating. Tamarind seed roasted, crushed and boiled yields good gum.) When heated, the water in the big pot at the bottom evaporates and the vapour, which hits the cold bottom of the big pot above, condenses, drips and fills the small pot. It is pure water. As the water in the big pot on top gets warm it is removed with a cup in small quantities and fresh cold water added; the colder the water the quicker the condensation.
In between the big pots, there may be pinholes through which the vapour can escape. To prevent this, a thin cloth is twisted and wrapped around between the big pots.
The big pots may have a holding capacity of about 20 litres each and the two small ones about 5 litres each. The small pot filled with sand prevents the condensed water from getting heated and evaporating. Under low fire, it takes about 30 minutes to yield 5 litres of potable water. For more the process may be repeated or more stills may be set up.
The still might not be more than a domestic model, so Dr. Ryan has designed a much larger, community water supply system which can provide safe water for 50,000 people every day or for cultivation on 10 hectares of land, sector by sector. With maintenance being minimal in this system, villagers can use it effectively without any external help.
Dr. Ryan has also designed a generator activated by seawater running through a turbine by gravity and producing enough electricity to power industrial heating elements of 100 KW capacity to heat 5,000 litres of seawater every hour in a large stainless steel container. The heated seawater can in turn create a sea of potable water by the distillation process.
In January this year, at the instance of General Raj Pal of the Indian Army, Dr. Ryan went to Bangalore, Cantonment Area, to show ways of improving the drinking water position there. His methods are now being implemented in stages. Dr. Ryan has made models for getting potable water at lower capacities and his innovations are already in use in places as far apart as North America, Europe and Australia and in several parts of Africa such as Somalia. Where distillation is not done, Dr. Ryan advocates purification of water by growing duckweed in storage tanks as is now being done in at least three states in the U.S. on a large scale. Closer home, duckweed has been introduced in Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore. Dr. Ryan further says chlamydomonas reinhardi, a unicellular algae, is prized for its metal-eating properties. The algae are easily available and can be genetically engineered and multiplied rapidly. Compared with chemical extraction methods in use now, it is environment-friendly and effective and less costly too.
In their efforts to genetically enhance the algae, researchers have found an effective method, which involves attaching a protein known as metallothionen to the algae. The protein enhances the cells' metal picking capabilities by five times. It is a major step forward, says Dr. Ryan, in reducing heavy metal pollution and remediation of contamination in and around great lakes, ponds, catchment areas and storage tanks.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has named its fresh water chief to monitor the various innovations and inventions of Dr. Ryan while the UNEP at Osaka, Japan, has put them on its web site. The European Economic Commission has made him an offer in writing of a grant of Euro 5,00,000 provided the local government collaborates with his Ryan Foundation for providing clean, drinking water for mass use.
Notwithstanding these, Dr. Ryan's innovations do not seem to have found much favour in India except in Gujarat about five years ago during severe drought conditions. When L. K. Advani and Maneka Gandhi sought his help to save the people of Gujarat from dehydration and death, he had in less than 10 days created a miracle of sorts by providing drinking water to innumerable villagers through his time-tested method.
D. V. RAJAN
Send this article to Friends by