Clean Water in Developing Countries: How Activated Carbon Is Making This a Reality

Clean, safe, potable water is something that people in industrialized nations tend to take for granted, but much of the developing world still lacks. UNICEF notes that roughly 2.5 million people around the globe lack adequate sanitation, while 748 million depend on unsafe water sources. Approximately 1,000 children die every day from these conditions.

Bringing safe drinking water to developing countries has long been a priority for world governments, charitable organizations, and enterprising individuals, but the challenges are staggering. However, activated carbon has proven time and again to be an important part of the solution.

About Activated Carbon

Since antiquity, activated carbon has played a vital role in water purification. It has a remarkable ability to bind and trap impurities, including many of the organic compounds and chemical byproducts that cause waterborne illnesses, as well as the noxious materials that create unpleasant tastes and smells. In the developed world, activated carbon is used at both the home and municipal levels, often in tandem with other water purification techniques.

Suitability of Activated Carbon Filters for Local Production

Activated carbon is created by heating carbon-rich organic materials in a low-oxygen environment for a long period of time. This removes water and other substances without allowing the material to burn. The resulting product, known as char, is further processed to increase its surface area and create a submicroscopic network of pores.

Historically, char made from wood has been activated through either steam processing or by soaking it in strong chemical salts, namely calcium chloride or zinc chloride. However, with an ongoing global deforestation issue, wood is not a practical solution for the developing world. Steam processing would be dangerous and prohibitively expensive in developing nations, and neither calcium chloride nor zinc chloride is readily available in many of the countries that are desperately in need.

Researchers from Santa Clara University, as well as numerous other institutions, have been working on alternative solutions. As it turns out, coconut shells, bamboo, peat, and even sawdust are capable of producing adequate char. Additionally, the Santa Clara group’s field testing shows that inexpensive sodium chloride, or table salt, works well even in a 25% solution. Although further research is needed, it appears that local production of activated carbon, using locally sourced agricultural byproducts, could be feasible. It is also possible to combine activated carbon with already-existing water filtration for an even more effective dual-stage approach, as is common in industrialized nations.

Individual Activated Carbon Units

The easiest delivery method of clean, safe water is to the individual consumer. While difficult to produce on site, these units have been invaluable in bringing safe drinking water to the most at-risk countries. One example is Vestergaard’s Lifestraw, a packet that hangs around the user’s neck and uses a straw to draw water through a two-stage membrane and activated carbon filter. It has shown great success in Kenya, where the death rate has been decreasing since the unit’s 2005 introduction, and is frequently distributed to survivors of such major disasters as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Small-Scale Portable Filtration Devices

While individual filtration plays a valuable role, it is not a satisfactory solution on its own. There are simply too many people in need, and having to filter every drop of water you use through a small personal container can be challenging—as anyone who has ever been backcountry camping is aware.

Activated carbon-based portable filtration devices, such as those distributed by the Red Cross, can serve a household or a small village. Until recently, they have been the preferred distribution method for developing nations, as they can be placed in a central location near the water source. However, many of the countries with the biggest challenges are extremely overcrowded, leading to long lines.

Compliance can be an issue, as local residents may not be fully educated on the dangers of untreated water and may be more concerned with quickly getting water, treated or not, and returning to their daily duties. Although compliance rates can improve with better education, this remains a suboptimal choice.

Large-Scale Implementations

Of course, the best choice is large-scale implementation, with clean water readily available to every citizen. It will be a long time before the developing world gets the same easy access to safe water that developed nations enjoy, but many organizations are working towards this goal.

One of the latest projects is the Omniprocessor, developed in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Still in the prototype phase, the novel contraption uses activated carbon as part of its filtration system, which converts sewage into safe, clean drinking water and much-needed electricity at the rate of 14 tons of processed sewage per day. Although there is a long way to go, devices such as the Omniprocessor and its competitors could eventually go a long way towards making large-scale drinking water a reality around the globe.

Are you interested in purchasing activated carbon for a specific application? Do you require expert guidance in choosing the right impregnation for your needs? With more than 70 years of experience in the activated carbon industry, Oxbow Activated Carbon is proud to provide the most diverse line of activated carbon products on the market today. We provide both standard and custom impregnations, spent carbon disposal and reactivation, and numerous other specialized services. We pride ourselves on our individualized customer service, and we look forward to becoming your one-stop shop for all your activated carbon needs.

Clay Miller
the authorClay Miller
I am the creator/writer of and I'm an advocate for oceans, beaches, state parks. I enjoy all things outdoors (e.g. running, golf, gardening, hiking, etc.) I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats!!). I'm also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Kentucky.

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