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May 11th, 2009
How nanotech can meet the poor's water needs
David Dickson: Nanotechnology holds huge potential for supplying clean water to the world's poor, but many challenges must be overcome to realise it.
When the economist Fritz Schumacher coined the phrase "small is beautiful" more than 30 years ago, he was hoping to promote "intermediate technologies" that focus on local techniques, knowledge and materials, rather than high-tech solutions to problems facing the world's poor.
Nowhere is the promise of nanotechnology stronger than in water treatment. Nanofiltration techniques and nanoparticles can reduce or eliminate contaminants in water and could help deliver a key Millennium Development Goal — halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by the year 2015.
The challenges are many, and not just technical. Some relate to health and safety, and the need for appropriate regulations to defend both. And some are more political, for example the need to make basic technologies both accessible to and controllable by the communities that need them most. Like any new technology, community acceptance is essential if nanotechnology is to effectively work in villages across the developing world, where water problems are often the most acute.
But there are many reasons to be optimistic that we can overcome these challenges and, by doing so, that nanotechnology can pioneer a new paradigm for applying modern technology to development needs. Its current applications show how modern science and technology can be successfully blended with concern for human and environmental health on the one hand, and a commitment to community engagement in technological innovation on the other.
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