Photo: Rachel Cernansky
I spent part of last month walking from home to home in Kagamega, Kenya, a mostly-rural region known for one of the last remaining tracts of the Congolese forest belt. It is not dissimilar to so much of the developing world, however, in its lack of access to clean water, which is available to about 15 percent of homes in rural areas, according to Francis Odhiambo, Provincial Public Health Officer for the region.
I was in Kakamega with the Carbon for Water campaign, run by Vestergaard Frandsen, the company behind the LifeStraw water filter and one the largest makers of mosquito nets in the world. VF was distributing nearly a million LifeStraw Family water filters, which are designed to provide a family of five with clean water for three years—but more notable is the payment plan for the filters. The name "Carbon for Water" didn't come from nowhere: the filters have been registered with the Gold Standard Foundation's voluntary carbon credit market.
Photo: Rachel Cernansky
Woman tries out her new LifeStraw Family at home
Say what you will about carbon credits—and I do—it's entering promising new territory to address public health and climate change at the same time. (I saw 'new' because while a lot of us may know there's a direct link between health and the environment, that lesson is being learned at a sick turtle's pace at the decision-making level.)
The Carbon for Water project is the first to use the carbon market to fund an initiative that reduces emissions but also—by design—has public health benefits. For that reason, the resulting carbon credits are known as "charismatic" credits. Women and children stand to benefit the most from use of the filters—because they tend to suffer the most in the first place.
Women are responsible for first collecting water and then taking care of household tasks like cooking and making sure children are healthy. But breathing in indoor smoke when cooking or boiling water takes a rapid toll on women's health: Odhiambo said that respiratory disease is probably the fifth most prevalent health issue in the region. And it's certainly not a Kakamega-specific issue: clean cookstoves are gaining momentum around the world, and Hillary Clinton and Julia Roberts recently teamed up to raise awareness about this much-overlooked but really serious, and preventable, problem.
Eliminating the need to boil water—or preventing children from drinking contaminated water if a family does not have the time or resources to boil water for drinking regularly—can have a significant impact on women's daily lives, as well as on the overall public health of the region and potentially on the health of the nearby forest, to which people turn (illegally, but desperately) to gather firewood.
Photo: Rachel Cernansky
Women await disciplinary action from forestry officials after being caught illegally collecting firewood
So Vestergaard Frandsen, which has worked in Kenya before and has an established relationship with local health workers and officials, decided to test the new carbon-financed clean water model in Western Kenya. VF's very global staff teamed up with Kenyan health and community mobilization workers to distribute water filters to homes around the province, and with every filter came a 45-minute training session, followed a few days later by a spot-check by another worker, to ensure people understood what they were getting and knew how to use it properly. After a period of about six weeks, VG said it met the target of reaching 93 percent of homes in Western Kenya.
Making It Sustainable
Overall, VF expects the program to generate a reduction of more than two million tons of carbon emissions annually. The program will be audited by an independent agency every six months, and carbon credits will only be issued after the emission reductions are verified to be accurate.
While not everybody actually boils their water—they maybe should, but can't because they can't afford the firewood or charcoal, or simply don't have time in the day to dedicate to boiling water water—because VF has registered in the voluntary carbon market, it is allowed to receive credits for "suppressed demand." Cases where people have a need, for sanitation and health reasons, to boil water, but don't because they can't.
VF has made a 10-year commitment to Western Kenya, and one of the next steps is to construct repair centers around the province, allowing people to take their LifeStraw Family in for repairs when necessary, and for a replacement filter when the lifespan of their existing one is up.
More on Kenya and clean water:
11 Climbers Take on Mt Kilimanjaro to Raise $75,000 For Clean Water in Africa
Kenyan Villagers Turn Invasive Plant into Moneymaker
Hybrid Merri-Go-Round Water Pump Saves Lives in Africa
Kenya Grants Environmental Rights in New Constitution
Proposed Biofuel Project in Kenya Would Produce More Emissions Than Fossil Fuels