Tree seeds could provide low-cost water purification for developing nations
By Ben Coxworth
March 7, 2010
“In the developing world, more than 1 billion people cannot get clean drinking water... The United Nations says that dirty water causes 80 percent of diseases in the developing world, and kills 10 million people annually.” Those sobering lines are from the United Nations’ website, and underscore just how urgently needed water purification is in much of the world. What many people don’t realize, however, is that there are already naturally-occurring water filtration supplies available in many of these areas. They come in the form of seeds from the Moringa oleifera tree, and used properly, they can produce a 90.00 to 99.99% bacterial reduction in previously untreated water.
The drought-resistant Moringa has been described as the “world’s most useful tree”, as it produces cooking and lighting oil, soil fertilizer, and highly-nutritious food in the form of its pods, leaves, seeds and flowers. It is grown in Africa, India, South East Asia and Central and South America - all places that lack sufficient potable water.
It has been known for some time that its seeds can also be used to purify water, although that knowledge has never been widely disseminated, even amongst the locals. The purification technique has recently been written up in the scientific journal Current Protocols in Microbiology, and is being offered as a free download as part of publisher John Wiley and Sons’ Corporate Citizenship Initiative. It is hoped that by offering the technique is this widely-available format, communities that need the information will be better able to get it.
The purification process involves grinding Moringa seeds into a paste, mixing that paste with untreated water, waiting for the paste particles to bind with the impurities and settle to the bottom, and then decanting or siphoning the pure water off the top. The entire process is actually quite involved, so the resultant drinkable water would still be a pretty precious commodity.
"This technique does not represent a total solution to the threat of waterborne disease," stated Michael Lea, one of the Current Protocols authors. "However, [...] there is the possibility that thousands of 21st century families could find themselves liberated from what should now be universally seen as 19th century causes of death and disease. This is an amazing prospect, and one in which a huge amount of human potential could be released. This is particularly mind-boggling when you think it might all come down to one incredibly useful tree."