How a helicopter and really long pipe can bring clean water to disaster survivors

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 5 September 2014 10:16 GMT

People walk through a makeshift tent camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti February 22, 2010, after the earthquake. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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The Haitian earthquake sparked a search for a new method of delivering clean drinking water

SAN FRANCISCO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, two engineering students at the Georgia Institute of Technology were struck by how difficult it was to restore water supplies to the millions of people affected by the disaster.

Haiti’s water infrastructure lay in tatters, with roads and pipes damaged and water trucks unable to reach local communities, while supplies where stuck at the airport in the capital Port-au-Prince.

For Benjamin Cohen and Apoorva Sinha, the disaster in Haiti sparked a search for a new method of delivering clean water to disaster survivors. After two years of trying out various ideas they found a solution: install a kilometre-long bendable plastic tube with the assistance of  a helicopter.

“Eventually, we arrived at a solution that could be installed by helicopter because that gives you versatility if you can’t use roads, you need to be able to get a continuous flow of supplies to an area,” Cohen told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. “That’s why we thought a pipeline is the most efficient way to do this.”

The pair founded TOHL, which stands for Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics. 

The first trial of their mobile infrastructure solution with the Chilean Red Cross demonstrated that one kilometre of small diameter high-density polyethylene pipe (HDPE) could be laid down over mountainous terrain and in windy conditions in just nine minutes.

TOHL finds a water source close to an area that needs water, subcontracts a helicopter and attaches massive spools of the pipe. The helicopter flies from the water source to the affected area, releasing the pipe a little bit at a time.

The water is sanitized at the end point. Pipes can be connected and can branch off from a main pipeline to individual houses, so the water can potentially travel long distances and be pumped to individual households.

The system can provide a total flow rate in the range of 7 to 70 liters per minute with a small helicopter. It can be set up hours after a natural disaster and be removed, reused or recycled.

The for-profit TOHL has also created a not-for-profit branch in Chile to help meet humanitarian needs and aims to provide disaster relief after events like the Haitian earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan in Southeast Asia.

With money from the Chilean government, it deployed its helicopter solution in In El Boyenar, a poor community in the Andean foothills, where people had to get their water from water trucks as safe drinking water in the area was scarce. TOHL’s solution provided potable water to 58 families.

Cohen said he wants to have strategic warehouses in disaster-prone areas that can connect people to water sources.

“We need to have the mobile systems in strategic locations with trained people to deploy them,” he said.

But it is difficult to convince aid agencies to use TOHL’s mobile infrastructure, Cohen said.

“They are typically very conservative. It’s a chicken and egg type of situation. They don’t like to use technology that has not been used by others - so who is going to use it first?

“It’s another tool in the toolbag, and it’s a very useful one that could save a lot of lives but we need to find a partner to work with."

To make the company sustainable, TOHL also offers permanent water infrastructure solutions in Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti and Kenya, and it wants to expand globally.

In Tierra Nueva, Nicaragua, for example, it identified clean water sources and engineered a system to improve community health and sanitation, which now provides drinking water to four schools and 2,000 people.

(Editing by Ros Russell,

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