Across Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, a small blue plastic box is helping millions to have longer, healthier and more productive lives. The simple yet ingenious innovation is a water purifying chlorine dispenser thatis installed next to communal water sources. Designed by Innovations for Poverty Action and researchers at Harvard and UC Berkley, Dispensers for Safe Water is providing access to clean and safe water to over 2.6 million people, with dispensers at 10,000 water points.
There is a strong need for this innovation. Almost 11% of the global population – 780 million people – are without safe drinking water, leaving them susceptible to harmful bacteria and waterborne diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoea. Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five. Across all ages, it kills 1.8 million a year, and it is fifth for years of life lost due to premature mortality. The Dispensers for Safe Water project works to avoid these preventable illnesses through an inexpensive, sustainable program.
The project, managed by Evidence Action, is simple yet highly effective. Water quality improvements at the household level are as effective as improving hygiene, sanitation or the water supply, but can be provided at a significantly lower cost. However, for these efforts to succeed, the household must be consistent and correct in how they treat the water, and avoid recontamination. This is why Dispensers for Safe Water is providing metered doses of chlorine – chlorine kills 99.99% of harmful bacteria and reduces the incidence of diarrhoea by 40%. It purifies the water against recontamination for 24-72 hours, eliminating the risks from contact with unwashed containers or hands.
Determining the best means of distribution was essential. In Kenya, providing chlorine packets in retail stores, even at the low cost of $0.30 per month, led to regular use in less than 10% of households.  Instead, Dispensers for Safe Water eliminated user costs, recognizing that small fees raise little revenue while drastically reducing access. To further increase use, the dispensers are installed next to communal water sources, creating social pressure to conform and a constant reminder through the dispenser’s physical presence.
A project’s sustainability requires more than simply providing the product. It must be integrated into and accepted by the community. To ensure this, approval is first obtained from the community leaders, and the program ensures community engagement by training key stakeholders and welcoming everyone to the installation. Local promoters encourage use and educate on the dangers of contaminated water, in addition to ensuring a consistent supply of chlorine. Altogether, the program has had sustained adoption rates between 42% and 80%.
Dispensers for Safe Water is, according to Evidence Action, “one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce childhood diarrhoea.”  It costs less than $0.50 per person annually, and none of these costs are passed on to the communities. Beyond donations and grants, Evidence Action’s funding comes from carbon credit sales. By averting the use of firewood to boil water, they are reducing communities’ carbon footprints. Third party carbon project experts verify their programs and sell carbon credits. The profits are then reinvested towards the long term sustainability of the program.
Recently, the project was the first to win Stage Three Funding with USAID’s extremely competitive Development Innovation Venture (DIV), for a grant of $5.5 million. This will enable Evidence Action to scale the project to 25 million people by 2018. Dispensers for Safe Water has extraordinary potential to provide a resource that should be available to all – clean, safe water. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most significant.