Access to Safe Water: Approaches for Nanotechnology Benefits to Reach the Bottom of the Pyramid. Final Technical Report May 2011
New and emerging technologies such as nanotechnology can offer huge benefits in poverty alleviation. The challenges lie in taking these technologies from the laboratory to the bottom of the pyramid (BoP). This study was conducted to understand what prevents these technologies from benefiting the masses especially with respect to providing access to safe drinking water. Phase 1 of the study adopted a two-pronged approach of desk research and stakeholder consultations to identify the barriers and explore approaches that can mitigate them.
During the study, it was found that nanotechnology has made huge strides in providing solutions for safe drinking water. However the widespread roll out of these solutions especially to the BoP is impeded by a few barriers. Key among them is the lack of awareness among the target group; first, on the status of their water resources and its health impacts, and second on effective ways to address this issue. The study found that nanotechnology research benefits can reach the BoP, through innovative and appropriate delivery models. Though the scientific community is divided about the perceived risks of nanotechnology, they are unanimous in stating that mankind should reap the benefits of nanotechnology research provided risks are managed through precautionary and pro-active policy to practice connect. Therefore, in Phase 2 of this research the focus would be to pilot these approaches and test their scalability potential. The learnings from the ground will feed into developing a regulatory framework complemented by a set of exemplary package of practices for risk management.
The report is structured into four themes. The first theme reflects on the potential nanotechnology has to offer to water purification, keeping a focus on the BoP populations. There is a vast amount of research being carried out in India and abroad on the application of various nanomaterials including metal oxides, noble metals, magnetic particles, carbon nanotubes etc. for water purification. A few technologies harnessing the antimicrobial properties of silver nanoparticles have also been marketed in India, catering to both the BoP (starting at £ 9) and higher income groups (at £ 130).
While the potential of the application of nanotechnology is apparent, the roll out is not very widespread. The second theme highlights the barriers that impede the realization of the potential. The sector is plagued by both supply end barriers of costs, logistics and risk management as well as demand side issues related to the awareness levels and the (felt and latent) needs of the community.
There is a need to explore successful service delivery models and absorptive capacities of the population to overcome these barriers. The next theme touches upon emerging approaches that have found varied degrees of success in reaching the BoP from different sectors like water, energy, ICT etc. Design elements which run common in these approaches as well as validated through consultations are culled out and presented.
Finally the report brings out the key research gaps that need to be filled in order to ensure that technology benefits reach the BoP. Incubation support and funding are impediments for productizing a proven technology. The policy environment also needs to consider risks and benefits of these technologies and be moulded so as to protect the end user and the environment. Finally the delivery mechanisms that will reach the BoP need to be explored. While we have pointers towards creating a mechanism that works, there is a need to test its potential to be scaled up.
The study reiterated the need for in-depth translational research in ensuring that the basic needs of the BoP are met. It is time for research to move away from being a stand alone activity to work with diverse stakeholders in the field to solve real issues.
Development Alternatives Group, New Delhi, India, 31 pp.