This invention really does suck

The LifeStraw allows Africans safely to drink filthy water. Is it the most degrading gadget ever invented?

Would you be prepared to kneel down in dirty rivers and suck filthy water through a plastic filtering tube every time you needed to quench your thirst? Would you be willing to carry such an unattractive device around your neck everywhere you went? Would you accept having to walk miles to collect contaminated water and then pour it through a bulky filtering device at home?

I suspect you have answered no to all of the above questions. I also suspect that Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, the Danish CEO of a company that specialises in complex emergency-response and disease-control products, would answer no, too. I’m willing to bet that Vestergaard Frandsen quite likes having access to running water. He probably prefers to sip water out of proper glasses rather than having to suck it through a tube. And I don’t think it would be too presumptuous to suggest he would find it cumbersome – unacceptable even – to have to fetch water from rivers and wells and carry it home, sometimes for miles, in order to pour it through a purifying filter before enjoying a not-so-refreshing glass of H2O.

Yet Vestergaard Frandsen, the European-based company named after its CEO, believes LifeStraw, a microbiological purifier which it invented and launched in 2006 and which requires users to suck filthy water through a plastic tube or to filter it through an unattractive wall-mounted bucket, will meet the needs of over 1.1billion people around the world. ‘Since humans have the natural ability to suck’, the company website explains, ‘both adults and children above three years can use LifeStraw’ (1).


An African woman using
her LifeStraw

The company, which sells its products to aid agencies, believes LifeStraw is not just affordable (costing around $5 a straw or around $25 for the home filter), but is ‘revolutionary in its simplicity’. In a television interview on CNBC, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen said LifeStraw helps ‘create a life with dignity’ – as images of Africans bending over pots of murky water and kneeling by contaminated rivers, with plastic tubes in their mouths, were shown on the screen (2).

It took half an hour of Googling, looking at photos and watching YouTube videos of people in the developing world using LifeStraws, as well as a phone call to Vestergaard Frandsen’s head offices in Switzerland, for me to be convinced that this is not just some sick joke.

At first glance, LifeStraw, a filtering system which removes 99.9999 per cent of waterborne bacteria and over 98 per cent of waterborne viruses, and which removes particles down to 15 microns, requires no electrical power and can filter up to 700 litres of water, seems like a pretty smart invention (3). It can even make water from the river Thames drinkable, according to its creator. But apart from the fact that sucking filthy liquid through a plastic tube does not look too pleasant, LifeStraws can hardly put an end to the appalling fact that millions of people around the world are unable to turn on a tap and drink when they’re thirsty.


Who needs tap water and sanitation when you have the LifeStraw?

According to UK charity WaterAid, one in eight of the world’s population does not have access to clean water. This, combined with a lack of safe sanitation, results in over two million deaths a year (4). It would seem obvious that a businessman interested in combining ‘doing business with doing good’, as Vestergaard Frandsen described himself to CNBC, would at least acknowledge that a device like LifeStraw – no matter how clever the design – is neither a long-term nor ideal solution to this appalling state of affairs.

But there is no acknowledgement on Vestergaard Frandsen’s website that the straws are neither ideal nor a realistic solution to the problems that arise out of a lack of safe drinking water. Instead, the company professes a passion to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, specifically that of ‘reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water’ by the year 2015 (5).

To be fair, as an emergency relief, LifeStraws might come in handy. The portable water purifier removes bacteria and viruses that cause common diarrhoeal diseases – major killers in the developing world – and simply requires the user to dip the 31 centimetre-long plastic tube into a water source and suck. They are cheaper and more portable than filtered water and so could be a more effective short-term solution in extreme situations, for instance when people have been displaced by conflict or an environmental disaster or where the local water source has been contaminated.


You’re never too young
to learn that life sucks

Yet that is no excuse for celebrating the LifeStraw as a major breakthrough. Vestergaard Frandsen, which also sells insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets and plastic sheeting, promotes LifeStraw as a life-saving solution. However, while the filter, at best, reduces infection rates, it also sends a message that we in the West should help the poor to accommodate to living in filth.

When I asked a representative of the company in Switzerland if she could see LifeStraws being used in the West, she responded that it might be, in emergency situations. But would Westerners be prepared to use the LifeStraw as their regular way of drinking water? ‘You and I are used to just turning on the tap to get water that meets certain standards’, she said. ‘You wouldn’t die from that.’ In other words, since we don’t need LifeStraws in the West it seems the company sees no reason to consider whether we would be willing to use them.

Doesn’t Vestergaard Frandsen believe people in the developing world, too, would like access to safe, running water? ‘We’re looking at all kinds of solutions for the developing world’, the company representative told me. ‘We’re a very small company, we only sell three products.’ Considering it has offices in 12 countries and claims that it is helping to ‘put an end to the needless suffering of millions’, it seems Vestergaard Frandsen could aim a bit higher than bringing poor people to their knees every time they need a drink of water.

Of course, as the company rep told me, with LifeStraw Family – the home filter device – you don’t have to ‘bend down and suck’. You simply pour water into a bucket and then let it flow through a purifying filter. Water which you will have to fetch from outside, litre by litre, and drag home.

Seeing as the company has sold between 500,000 and one million of the LifeStraw and LifeStraw Family products to organisations of different sizes, and the feedback from these organisations – according to the representative I spoke to – has been ‘fantastic’, the company is not alone in thinking ‘the natural ability to suck’ is a great thing. In fact, LifeStraw has been given many prestigious awards, including the Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas, Esquire’s Innovation of the Year Award, the Well-Tech Award for Innovative Technology and Time’s Best Invention Award. The LifeStraw was also listed by Forbes as one of Ten Things That Will Change the Way We Live in 2006 and it was a finalist in the 2005 INDEX: Design Awards (6).

However, when LifeStraw was first launched, there was one critical voice. Paul Hetherington, a spokesman for WaterAid, did not think much of it because it is relatively expensive for impoverished families and it does not address the fact that poor people, particularly women, need to walk long distances to fetch the water (7).

From a design perspective, LifeStraw is clever – a simple solution indeed. But extreme poverty requires more than simple solutions. The message behind devices like LifeStraw and anti-malarial bednets and plastic sheeting – devices that, at best, can only take the edge off poverty – is that people in the developing world should only hope to protect themselves from the harshest, most life-threatening challenges that they face. They shouldn’t hope to change their world, but simply guard themselves against the harshest aspects of it. If Vestergaard Frandsen’s device does manage to live up to elements of the Millennium Development Goals, then it will only be because those goals epitomise the dearth of development ambitions in the aid business today. Poor people are being told that they should give up on development and instead learn to survive poverty.

Charities and companies are in danger of treating Africans and others as beggars who can’t be choosers, who should just smile and be grateful for whatever patronising, degrading, small-scale ‘solutions’ Western companies and aid agencies with a liberal conscience throw at them. There is, in fact, only one way in which LifeStraw lives up to its own grand claims – it really does suck.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild argued that ethical gifts were degrading to those they supposedly benefit. She also thought it was time to unwrap ‘Oxfam Unwrapped’. Sadhvi Sharma explained why patronising Christmas gifts get her goat. And Rob Harris urged us to ditch the ‘nostalgia for mud’. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) See the FAQs on Vestergaard Frandsen’s website.

(2) Watch the video here.

(3) See Vestergaard Frandsen’s website. The home filter, LifeStraw Family, removes 99.9% of all bacteria, viruses and parasites, and provides around 18,000 litres of clean and safe water. 

(4) See WaterAid’s website

(5) See Vestergaard Frandsen’s website.

(6) Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen Developer of the LifeStraw water purifier, Adweek, 3 March 2008

(7) New straw to kill disease as you drink, BBC News, 4 May 2006

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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