In the summer of 1993, a mutant strain of cholera (the "Bengal Cholera") hit India, killing tens of thousands of people. The standard vaccine was ineffective and most of the populace of India could not afford to boil their drinking water to protect themselves. Ashok Gadgil, a Berkeley Lab scientist, spurred to action by the tragedy, developed an affordable, effective and low-maintenance water disinfection system employing ultraviolet (UV) light. Cleaning water at four gallons/minute, his UVWaterworks devices are installed in over 10 countries around the world. By 2007 these systems were bringing clean water to over half a million people, and growing. Water-borne diseases, such as dysentery, are the largest environmental cause of child and infant mortality in the developing world, killing about 2 million children annually. UVWaterworks goes to the source of the problem by preventing the spread of these diseases, saving resources and lives.
Ashok Gadgil developed UVWaterworks with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), US Department of Energy, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Berkeley Lab. In 1993, he led a research team to review existing technologies and held a workshop in Washington D.C. to work on a design for the device. Gadgil's team completed a prototype in 1995. Unprocessed water flows into UVWaterworks, and through a shallow tray under a mercury plasma lamp at a rate of 15 liters/min. The prototype device was capable of providing daily drinking water for 2,000 people at 1 kilowatt-hour per day (kWh/day), making it a highly energy-efficient alternative to boiling water. The device needs little maintenance and, unlike other ultraviolet-based water purifiers, does not require pressurized water-delivery systems or large electrical power.
The development team was sensitive to the needs of the target market, many of whom earn only $1 per day. Based on feedback from field trials of the initial design, the scientists reengineered the device to fit on a small tabletop. Affordable to those who need it most, UVWaterworks disinfects water at the cost of five cents/ton. In 1996 WaterHealth International, WHI, a startup company was given an exclusive license to the technology. Gadgil became their scientific advisor as they adapted the UV water filter design for manufacture.
WHI now offers commercial versions of UVWaterworks, in different configurations, capable of providing communities of 2,000 to 10,000 with up to 20 liters of safe drinking water per person per day. In field installations (called 'WaterHealth Centers'), the water also passes through mechanical and carbon filters, removing sediment and organic materials, thus improving perceived quality, and also providing a safety margin. As of 2007, UVWaterworks devices were operating in more than 500 locations, including India, Mexico and the Philippines. With Berkeley Lab's UVWaterworks as the core, WaterHealth International has created a financially viable and sustainable system for delivering safe and affordable drinking water to the rural population. WaterHealth International partners with local organizations that understand the language, culture and customs of the area.
These organizations provide health education, work with village members to bring UVWaterworks into the community and give locals ownership over the device. WaterHealth takes on the technical responsibility to build, commission, and operate the WaterHealth Center. They employ a person to operate and maintain the system and a social worker to sell water coupons to the families. WaterHealth also arranges for bank financing of the installation. The biggest success has been in India where WaterHealth reports, "many in the village call it a miracle."1 In India, the WaterHealth Centers sell water for 2 cents U.S. for 10 liters. When the Tsunami hit South Asia, WaterHealth established relief and reconstruction programs in India and Sri Lanka. Using the UVWaterworks technology, WaterHealth has been providing over 56,000 Sri Lankan survivors with clean water since May 2006.2
UVWaterworks has won numerous awards, including Popular Science magazine's Best of What's New 1996, and a Discover magazine award for environmental technology in 1995, and a place in the permanent collection of public health innovations at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. In 2006, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago included Gadgil, Senior Staff Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, among 40 eminent artists and scientists "whose work embodies the spirit and creativity of Leonardo da Vinci." A UVWaterworks unit was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in 2006.