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Researchers make significant breakthrough to solve unmet need for potable water in Navajo Nation: 'This device can work for us'

"This is just the beginning of trying to solve a local problem for a specific group of people."

"This is just the beginning of trying to solve a local problem for a specific group of people."

Photo Credit: iStock

A team of engineers is working to improve access to clean drinking water in rural areas.

The problem is prevalent in Navajo Nation in the Southwest United States, and researchers from the University of Texas at Austin used traditional Indigenous pottery, silver particles, and pine tree resin to create a water filtration solution, according to a news release. The October study was published in Environmental Science & Technology.

Silver-based water filtration is not new, the release noted. But the nanoparticles can reduce a filter's lifespan and react with sulfide and chloride in untreated water to "reduce the disinfection efficacy of the silver particles on the clay lining."

Pinyon pine tree resin made the difference. It's a common product of the Navajo Nation environment, and the researchers used it to line ceramic pots to control the release of the silver particles embedded in the resin.

The pots, made by Navajo Deanna Tso, cost less than $10 and last for three years, after which they can be recoated, according to Eos.

"Making water filtration technology cheap doesn't solve all the problems, and making it effective doesn't solve everything either," Navid Saleh, environmental and water resources engineer, co-author of the study, and leader of the project, said. "You have to think about the people you are making it for."

The release attributed the success of the venture to the importance of pottery in Navajo culture, researchers' engagement with the community, and reliance on local materials, alluding to European settlers' and the U.S. government's genocide of Native Americans.

"This device can work for us," said Tso, a researcher, co-author of the study, and third-generation potter from Tuba City, Arizona, in Navajo Nation.

"Navajo pottery is at the heart of this innovation because we hoped it would bridge a trust gap," said Lewis Stetson Rowles III, a former UT doctoral student, now an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University. "Pottery is sacred there, and using their materials and their techniques could help them get more comfortable with embracing new solutions."

This and other technological breakthroughs could help ease water scarcity issues throughout the world.

More than half of Earth's wetlands have disappeared, and two-thirds of humans could experience water shortages by next year, the World Wildlife Fund reported. Inefficient agriculture is a big problem, but so is pollution and climate change, which are fueling extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

"This is just the beginning of trying to solve a local problem for a specific group of people," Saleh said. "But the technical breakthrough we've made can be used all over the world to help other communities."

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