A chance conversation between two strangers at New York's JFK airport in 2004 has today impacted and improved the lives of people in rural India. One was a scientist from America, who had developed a machine that converts air into safe drinking water, but wasn't sure how to promote and scale this technology. The other was a head honcho at an Indian firm, Pallan Katgara, who immediately recognised the impact it could have in India. He immediately called up his sister from the airport and started talking about this fantastic, futuristic technology. Today, Meher Bhandara heads WaterMaker India—a for-profit company that supplies the machine invented by Dan Zimmerman, across the country.
When Bhandara first heard of the technology, she was understandably incredulous. Here's how it works: The machine condenses the humidity in the atmosphere and collects the resulting water. After the condensation process, the water is put through filters to make it safe for consumption. So far, WaterMaker India has set up two Air Water stations, one in Jalimudi village, Andhra Pradesh and the other in Gandhigram, Gujarat, as a CSR initiative.
The Gandhigram Air Water Station
This initiative is especially important in a country like ours where water-borne diseases caused a heart-breaking 10,738 deaths in India between 2013 and 2017, according to a report. According to the Indian Human Development Survey, one in four rural households spends more than half an hour walking to a water source for the family's needs. "Since the installation of the WaterMaker India machines, the villagers keep better health and save on medical expenses due to illness from water-borne diseases. The women and girls have more time for productive work or education, instead of spending three hours a day or more fetching water," Bhandara says.
Despite this, getting support from local governing bodies to set up the WaterMaker machines remains difficult in rural areas. "They would rather dig wells, tube wells and purify water using RO which entails over 60% of water wastage which, in turn, re-contaminates the ground. By encouraging tube wells and solar pumps for agricultural use, the water table is being depleted at an alarming rate all over India. However, I must say that awareness is increasing and we do get appeals from a few panchayats," she says.
Meher Bhandara (centre) with locals from Jalimudi, Andhra Pradesh
Availability of a consistent power source and geographical limitations also prove to be a challenge for the entrepreneur and her team; the technology works best in a hot and humid climate. "We are blessed with a huge coastline though, and it is in these areas that it is most effective," she explains.
In the future, WaterMaker India plans to work with more NGOs, charities and socially responsible companies to provide safe drinking water to the people who need it the most. "I want the whole world to know about this technology and I want to do more for our people," she says.