Pakistan's solar boxes are turning floods into clean drinking water

Charity Bondh E Shams' boxes filter flood water into clean, drinkable water

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Devastating floods, which have ravaged Pakistan since mid-June, have killed more than 1,200 people and caused more than $10 billion worth of damage to infrastructure, agriculture and transport.

With over a third of the country now submerged, the floods, the worst since 2010, are estimated to have affected at least 33 million lives, official data shows. More than 3,451 kilometres of road have been damaged and 149 bridges have collapsed, leaving little option to locals for escape let alone access to life essentials and clean drinking water.

The south-eastern Sindh province, the third-largest in Pakistan, has been the worst hit by the flooding. This is expected to worsen as waters from higher areas are expected to flood it in the coming days.

Ali, 32, who lived with his family in Pithoro, a town in Umerkot district in lower Sindh, told The National over the phone that almost all of the homes have been completely destroyed in the area. This comes after a deluge of almost 400 millimetres of rain.

More than 70,000 families in Umerkot alone have been displaced and are now living in a “tent city”, with people struggling to move towards Karachi and Hyderabad.

And with more water wreaking havoc on roads and motorways every day, providing relief has been a considerable challenge.

But despite such adversity, Ali’s village has been sent an expected gift by a local charity in the form of a solar-powered box, known as the Oasis Box. The box is both energy independent and portable and can filter flood water into clean, drinkable water.

Bondh E Shams

Drinking water may seem like an unquestionable right in many parts of the world, But in Pakistan, especially during rainy season, it is a luxury as only 25 per cent of the population have access to clean drinking water.

This dire reality inspired Hamza Farrukh, founder of the charity Bondh E Shams, and his team to help. Their solar water project may not have been created for flood relief, but it is proving to be an immediate and vital source of aid.

The Oasis Box idea came about after Mr Farrukh questioned what he could do with the privilege he had gained from his education.

Pakistanis affected by floods in a Karachi tent camp set up by the Islamic political party Jamat-e-Islami. EPA

During his time studying economics, political science and leadership studies at the UK’s Williams College, Mr Farrukh won a Davis Projects for Peace Grant in 2014 which allowed him to start creating the box.

He then continued his studies at the University Oxford and now works at Goldman Sachs as vice president within a sales team, in addition to running Bondh E Shams.

Reflecting on his childhood memories of the ancestral village of Chakwal, Punjab, Mr Farrukh said water had made a big impression on him. When he was about 7, he contracted typhoid after drinking contaminated water.

“I could say that was a transformative experience but honestly I just remember being very sick,” he said.

It was not until years later that his education combined with his experiences made him see the water-scarcity crisis in Pakistan in a new light. His charity has now installed 40 water projects across five countries and provided 63,000 cups of clean water.

Founded in 2014, Bondh E Shams launched its mission with the sole purpose of ending global water scarcity. The team now spans over four countries and have installed boxes in Yemen, South Sudan and Afghanistan, along with Pakistan.

A godsend gift

“The people at Bond E Shams have been a godsend for our village," Ali said. "They’d already sent us a solar box last year due to the issues of dirty water in our area, but now they’ve sent three more to cater to the village."

Sarah Nizamani, the organisation’s sustainability ambassador, contacted local aid officials and delivered the much-needed solar water box to Ali’s village after she assessed the area.

Ali said private NGOs and the government were providing relief, but that this did not cater for everyone and that most rations have lasted a week.

The Oasis Box has helped reduce the dependence of the villagers, who number between 10,000 and 15,000, on rations for clean drinking water.

With nearly 200,000 cases of diarrhoea, dysentery and other waterborne diseases reported in Sindh in August, the importance of clean drinking water cannot be understated. Medical camps have reported at least 279 deaths, but some of these have been caused by other injuries and electric shock.

The Bondh E Shams 'Oasis Box'. Photo: Bondh e Shams

Locals in rural communities have been forced to drink flood waters after their clean water sources were affected by the monsoon rains.

Ramji Kolhi, who lives near Pithoro city in Sindh, said that despite knowing the risks, villagers had no choice.

"The water around us is harmful for humans and animals alike, but drinking it is a compulsion, not a choice,” he said.

Lack of disaster management

Pakistan has long struggled with disaster management and Ms Nizamani, a development economist, said much of the failure in this crisis had resulted from several factors.

“Flood risk management is based on three things: investment in early warning technology, improvement in infrastructure and relief mechanisms which are quick and transparent. Pakistan has been struggling to strengthen all three,” she said.

At a time when most people are focusing on much-needed rations, Mr Farrukh’s solution adopts a longer-term approach. The success of the campaign he had been raising funds for meant that he could also immediately prepare the boxes for dispatch.

In the past week, three boxes have already been sent to villages in Sindh. By the end of next week, eight more will be sent to Punjab and Balochistan.

“Governments can no longer afford to avoid tech to improve sustainability," Ms Nizamani said. "Solutions like the oasis box meet multiple goals of solving long-time development pains by improving efficiency, practicing transparency, and delivering results."

For women, who are often the main water gatherers in rural communities, the risk of the floods has been huge.

With more than 650,000 pregnant women in flood-affected areas and healthcare services overwhelmed, hygiene and sanitation are a luxury few can enjoy.

The small privilege of having accessible clean water nearby has changed their lives.

“Now that we don’t have to walk miles and miles to get clean drinking water, we can actually be a part of the local economy and contribute to other activities in the community,” a woman told Mr Farrrukh, he recalled, after he installed the first box in his own village in 2014.

Men perform ablution with the flood water during the monsoon season in Bajara village, at the banks of Lake Manchar, in Sehwan, Pakistan, on Tuesday. Reuters
Updated: September 08, 2022, 10:46 AM
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