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Teens join the fight for clean water

Two young inventors have come up with innovative ways to fight water contamination and pollution

Gitanjali Rao and Haaziq Kazi want to fight water pollution.
Gitanjali Rao and Haaziq Kazi want to fight water pollution.

Water scarcity and pollution are one of the biggest environmental problems before humanity today. Over 844 million people live without access to safe water, and more people die due to unsafe water every year than from war and all other forms of violence combined, according to data from NGO Water Aid. Unrestrained dumping of waste in rivers and oceans has also had serious consequences for the environment, destroying fragile aquatic ecosystems. Part of the global crusade to fight water pollution are Haaziq Kazi and Gitanjali Rao, two young inventors who have come up with innovative new solutions to detect lead contamination and take care of ocean waste, respectively. The two were in Mumbai to present their inventions at the TEDxGateway conference, held on 2 December.

“The idea for my device came after I learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan," says 13-year-old Denver resident Rao, referring to the 2014-15 water contamination scandal that led to local authorities facing charges like involuntary manslaughter. Appalled at the idea that children her age were forced to drink contaminated water every day, Rao—whose twin passions are “science and kindness"—set to work trying to solve the problem. “My original idea was to completely remove lead from the water, but that’s a very complex problem," she says. “So I took a step back and looked at the big problem, that not many people know that what they’re drinking contains lead. So I came up with the idea of creating an easy-to-use device to detect lead in water."

Called Tethys, after the Titan goddess of fresh water, Rao’s device uses carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead contamination, and informs you of the results almost instantly through a custom app. Developed with the help of research specialist Kathleen Shafer at 3M, a US-based corporation operating in the fields of industry, health care, and consumer goods, and Selene Hernandez-Ruiz, water quality lab manager at Denver Water, Rao has funded her research with help from The Female Quotient, a female-owned business committed to advancing equality in the workplace through collaboration, as well as with the $50,000 (around 35 lakh) that she has won in cash prizes over the last year and a half. She’s currently looking to build 50 prototypes for testing, and hopes to bring the product to market within three years. “We’re on track for it to cost 300 in bulk, with the cartridges costing around 10," she says. “The device currently only detects lead but the technology can be adapted to detect any other contaminants in water."

Pune-based Kazi, 12, was inspired to create ERVIS—a ship that aims to suck waste floating on the ocean surface—after watching a documentary on the amount of plastic waste in the ocean. Not long after, the 12-year-old while washing hands observed the water create a whirlpool as it drained out of the sink. “I thought maybe I could use that same concept to suck in ocean waste through a saucer," says Kazi, who successfully tested out the idea—that involves using centrifugal force to pull the waste into a saucer-shaped container— with toys in his bathtub. He created a rough model of the ship that he presented to his school’s TED-Ed club. “Then the folks at TED-Ed in New York called me to present my idea, so I made a more feasible and hydrodynamic model for that."

Kazi has been working with designers and engineers to create a testing prototype of the ship, with the project being funded by his father. “I want to make ERVIS a platform where like-minded innovative people can come and contribute," he says. “And I want to see multiple ERVIS’ manning the ocean, cleaning and scavenging the waste."

Both the young innovators feel that children should engage and involve more in finding solutions to the problems facing the world, because their generation will have to deal with the consequences. “If someone doesn’t do anything, then not only my generation but also future generations will suffer," says Kazi. “We can reverse the mistakes of the past generations and make smarter choices in every field, from climate change to pollution."

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