Eric retired in 2007 after 25 years of service in the US Navy that included 18 deployments and three wars to head Google NGO, InSTEDD. He now leads Infinitum Humanitarian Systems (IHS), a profit-for-purpose social business which provides advanced technology solutions for public health and capacity building in emerging markets. Their focus is Latin America.
As a disaster medicine specialist, Eric has led teams in more than a dozen disasters over the past twenty years, including the Izmit earthquake, Katrina, Banda Aceh, Haiti, Hurricane Sandy for FEMA, and the Philippines after Supertyphoon Haiyan for the Roddenberry Foundation. In addition, he has worked in war zones in Bosnia (3x), Afghanistan (twice), and Iraq (9 months).
Why did you see the need for IHS?
During the 25 years that I was in the Navy, I didn’t see that we were doing enough to support civilians in the war zones where we deployed. Rather than just bringing fire and steel on target to win hearts and minds, I thought that we might have a more engaging influence if we stopped the diarrhea that was killing their children. Where we did it, that proved true. But because we didn’t continue to do it, we’ve lost a little ground.
What we have found, though, is that water is a dominant issue everywhere in the developing world, particularly in post-conflict regions, but everywhere. There is a fantastic amount of waste in supplying water, for example. The government of Baja California, in the midst of a ruinous drought, quotes a figure of 88 million gallons of fresh water lost every month to graywater runoff into the ocean. They’re professionals, taking their responsibilities seriously, and that drives them crazy. We don’t do enough to reclaim graywater from showers, or to harvest rainwater or to drip-irrigate. Such things are obvious, but beyond supplying enough drinking water in communities, I saw how vital water is for hospitals, and schools, and other civilization services. They can’t work without it.
As a medical doctor with a lot of experience in natural disasters, I have personally known what its like to run out of water. With our team in the response to Supertyphoon Haiyan during November 2013, a supply flight was delayed and we ran out of water. One of the UN teams on site gave us, a team of 14, half of their last third of a jerrycan of water. When that water ran out, we all waited about 12 hours for a water delivery, trying to work, trying to ignore the thirst. Learning experience.
What do you do?
We look at new ways to reclaim used water and purify it for drinking. When we decided on this particular quest we took advantage of my nine years at DARPA and went looking for robust, small scale, energy efficient solutions still deep in someone’s garage. We found some surprisingly good options. There’s a lot of scientific and engineering creativity out there. Some of it has made it to a NASA TRL-5 or so, ready for field testing.
Now the Roddenberry Foundation has funded us, just as a pilot, to look at how we might fill the gaps in current approaches to supplying water during disaster relief.
What is the new solution for water in disaster relief?
IHS, with multiple very cool partners, has developed an approach that replaces single-use bottled water with a long-term water treatment solution on-site. We provide a robust solution during a relief effort and a long-term solution afterward. It saves dramatic amounts of water, energy, and waste, and generates no hazardous byproducts.
Our system is airlifted into an active disaster zones within a few days of the event. Rather than delivering water, it delivers a treatment solution to use the water that’s already there. We have a process to clean almost anything in water—from biological pathogens, to fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, to heavy metals like mercury and arsenic. It’s fast, robust, resilient, simple (though very high tech internally) and runs on renewable energy.
To help understand the problem we were trying to address with a business model, the usual disaster air transport is a C-130 aircraft which carries bottled water on a standardized 463L pallet. A C-130 can carry about 7,700 half-liter bottles on every trip, very roughly a thousand gallons. On the other hand, with that same load, we could ship in six of our units in a single flight and generate at least 500 gallons a day with each one, every day, for months. All we need is a water source in the disaster area, and most disaster areas have many. So instead of bringing in more bottled water by air day after day, that same C-130 can bring in medical supplies, shelter, food, and grieving relatives. Just one of our systems saves a huge amount of fuel and carbon emissions by eliminating more than a quarter of a million pounds of air transport every month.
That one system also replaces tens of thousands of single-use water bottles that litter the landscape of every disaster site for years afterward.
As the emergency response phase moves to recovery and reconstruction, we’ve designed a method for turning over the system entirely to provide a bit of economic benefit (and public health), in the recovery. We’re working with local organizations to help women establish long-term water vending businesses in these communities.
Where do you see the next big challenges for water tech?
At IHS, our opinion is that the challenges we’re about to face are not so much water technology, as:
1) Providing the renewable power for every kind of water purification,
2) Tackling the barriers to change set by policy and legislation,
3) Overcoming cultural barriers, habit and laziness in conservation.
But to stay with just tech, in our view we need to reclaim fresh water from anywhere we can get it, so I’m really excited about some work we’re doing in Mexico. We’re looking closely at some new bio-electrochemistry around bacterial biosolid degradation and the harvesting of transmembrane potentials from the resulting biofilms. The result is the conversion of pit latrine sludge to drinking water that meets all international standards plus a bit of storable energy. As of March we’ve now found it’s scalable. I find that interesting.