Anna Luísa Bezerra was only 13 years old when she first understood the water problems in her home state. In regions farther away from where she lived in Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, in Northeast Brazil, kids her same age were fleeing the state due to water shortages. Something had to change.
This motivated Anna Luísa to find solutions to the water crisis in her region. “The government and many institutions do not care about the people who suffer and still die for lack of basic sanitation and access to water,” she says.
At 17, the young scientists invented a device that helps to purify rainwater using only sunlight. In a matter of a few years, she founded her own company and took Aqualuz —which she named her invention— to rural towns.
The device helps rural communities purify stored rainwater, even after many months of having been collected. This could offer a safe option of drinking water during long periods of drought in the region.
Salvador —Anna Luísa’s home city— is a coastal area. In rural regions, which are about three hours away by car, the scenario is already different. The ‘Sertão Nordestino’, home to the Caatinga biome, is one of the driest parts in the country. In times of strong droughts, rainfall does not exceed 200 mm per year.
Without water, there’s trouble. According to the association ‘Eco Nordeste’, 27,6% of the Northeast region’s population does not have access to water and about 72% of the population does not even have access to sewage.
Cleaning water with light
Before developing any groundbreaking projects, in 2013 —International Year of Water Cooperation— Anna saw her first opportunity, during a contest for young scientists focused on water resources. As she loved physics, it was there that she found a possible way forward.
During the event, she learned that sunlight —with its infrared rays and radiation— cleans water without any chemicals. She developed the project using this idea, presented it, but did not win the competition. Still, the experience there changed her life, she says.
At 17, she entered the Federal University of Bahia in Biotechnology and came up with the first prototype of her water cleaning device, a product that could change the lives of many people in her native region.
Aqualuz —as she named it— basically uses a steel platform with a water purification meter and a water tank. Through a set of filters, the device uses sunlight to purify the stored water. It can clean up to 30 liters per day, without any chemicals.
The device works by heating water inside using sunlight. With the energy of solar radiation, bacteria in the water dies, leaving the water healthy for consumption. Evaporation is controlled through a glass container.
The main collection is rainwater. In the region, water tanks typically receive water from trucks sent by the municipality in drier times. However, it is not exhaustively treated and can have strong health impacts.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics in the survey ‘PNAD Continua’ of 2019, even in the houses of the Northeast that have daily water supply, 69% of them have a coverage that does not match their needs.
Because of this, Aqualuz has become an important tool for rural families in the face of climate change. In times of drought, the device could supply drinking water in households and also for small vegetable plantations, which are a common source of food in the area.
Anna took this idea to the private sector and created her company Sustainable Development & Water For All (SDW), to help her product reach more people. And it did. Today they are present in 15 Brazilian states. Aqualuz alone serves one thousand and one hundred families.
Today SDW has a portfolio with 5 products ranging from Aqualuz to self-managed sanitation systems. The products supply clean water to around 15 thousand people in rural communities.
Money for sanitation
The small public budget for sanitation is the main challenge for communities lacking clean water, according to Cicero Felix, coordinator of the ‘Articulação no Semiárido Brasileiro’ (ASA) Bahia —one of the main institutions of research and development of public policies.
“We have public policies, but the money needed to make them work often does not arrive. And another point is that the population that most needs clean and effective access to water is not involved in the debates that implement these policies. They need to be there. They are the ones who live that on a daily basis,” he added.
This is what most motivates Anna Luísa, she says. “What still continues to motivate me is the factor of laziness on the part of the government and many institutions that do not care about the people who suffer and still die from lack of basic sanitation,” she says.
One of the main plans Brazil has to combat constant droughts in Caatinga and mitigate the impacts of climate change is the National Plan to Combat Desertification, coordinated by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment.
According to Cicero that plan is not being properly implemented. “It is a necessary public policy to revert the problem in time and avoid an even stronger disaster for the population of northeastern Brazil,” Cicero said.
The region will become more arid as time goes by due to climate change, he added. Desertification, loss of vegetation, prolonged droughts and reduction of water supply for the population will follow as consequences.
“A great challenge is to face the causes that provoke climate changes, working in the perspective of reducing their effects”, adds Cicero.
Anna, who today is an ambassador and winner of the United Nations Young Champions of the Earth Award, wants to help mitigate this impact. Not just by being a leader, but by creating and implementing technologies that change people’s lives.
“In 5 years we want to have a portfolio with the most important technologies to solve the problem of rural sanitation in needy populations, with an impact of more than 12 million people directly benefited by them, in Brazil and in the world,” she concludes.