17 Sep 2019 Story Water

Safe water from solar power in Brazil

Twenty-one-year-old Brazilian Anna Luisa Baserra always wanted to be a scientist. From washing liquid to shampoo, no household item escaped the potential for becoming the next scientific experiment. 

“I used to play with my cousins, trying to make chemical compounds from any liquids we could find, mixing them up and pretending to be professional scientists,” she recalls.

But then, things got serious. It was on a trip to remote semi-arid communities that she realized the real power of science to change lives. Now she has a different dream: to use her scientific skill to invent new technology which benefits poor communities.

Specifically, by giving them access to safe drinking water. “It is a basic right that everyone should have clean water to drink,” she says. “But in the semi-arid northwest of Brazil, water scarcity is a problem.

“I always lived in big cities. But these rural communities need to store water during rains, so that they don’t have to walk long distances in drier seasons. Sometimes, the water becomes infected with disease and often it’s not clean,” she said. 

Diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death worldwide, linked to unsafe drinking water and a lack of improved sanitation and hygiene access. The burden of disease often falls on the young, poor, and those in rural areas. 

From a young age, Beserra wanted to be a scientist
From a young age, Beserra wanted to be a scientist. Photo by UN Environment Programme

Beserra’ solution Aqualuz is an innovative filter which purifies rainwater collected in a cistern installed in rural areas where running water is not accessible, a situation which affects more than a million people in Brazil. The water in the cistern is purified using rays from the sun. An indicator changes color when the water is safe to drink.

“I started talking with local communities who told me about sickness in their families, probably due to the lack of clean water. I wanted to do something to help solve the problem.

“I started researching and found a solar water disinfection method using solar radiation to kill disease. Together with the community, we tested it to create a product they can use which is efficient and durable.

The result is Aqualuz. Its development has been her sole occupation. Since graduating from school, Beserra has worked tirelessly to make Aqualuz, now in the final phase of development. 

Beserra’s solution delivers safe water to communities using solar energy
Beserra’s solution delivers safe water to communities using solar energy. Photo by UN Environment Programme

Her invention is low-cost, easy to maintain and clean, and can last up to 20 years. Although currently being tested in Brazil, it has potential for application in other countries.

Aqualuz has already delivered clean drinking water to 265 people and Beserra and her team are negotiating with companies supplying cisterns, to reach another 700 people by the end of 2019.

Inspired by her grandmother, who has five academic degrees and continues to study, Beserra says she aims to combine her mother’s nurturing qualities as a nurse with her father’s entrepreneurial skills.

“I inherited creativity from my father, and inspiration for social impact from my mother. I think my passion for environment and science comes from my grandmother. So, I think I am drawing on some rich cultural heritage!”

Aqualuz is tested together with local communities
Aqualuz is tested together with local communities. Photo by UN Environment Programme

“I’m doing something that I hope can make people’s lives better and save lives. My vision is to reach more than one million families in Brazil with existing cisterns. Everyone deserves clean water to drink.” 

Lis Mullin Bernhardt, Freshwater Expert at the UN Environment Programme, said: “With increasing competition and water stress in many parts of the world due to overconsumption and climate impacts, it’s essential that we find innovative ways to protect and provide safe water for one of our most basic human needs: drinking. Technologies such as this one are a good example of a local solution to solve this problem.”

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Anna-Luisa Beserra is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.