Bringing Clean Water Home

Advait Kumar, an electrical engineering graduate, founded Swajal, which makes clean water available in poverty-stricken areas of India.

Nestled on the banks of the Ganges, Kanpur, India, is particularly beautiful during monsoon season. That’s when the river swells and ancient, turquoise temples are lush with vegetation. But when the rains stop, temperatures soar as high as 120 degrees. Dust storms are not uncommon.

Advait Kumar, who grew up in Kanpur and recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in electrical engineering, remembers the punishing weather. And there’s something else he’ll never forget—watching domestic workers line up behind his family’s house in Kanpur, waiting to get clean water. 

"21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water related. This is curable.''—Advait Kumar

“I didn’t know pollution had gotten so bad,” said Kumar.  “These people didn’t have anything to drink, to cook with, or use to wash their clothes. Some neighbors turned them away, but not my mother. ‘If someone needs water,’ she said, ‘they should be able to take it.’”

With a population of more than two million people, Kanpur, an industrial city, has carved out a niche in tanneries. Most of these factories line the Ganges, which, in addition to being the holiest body of water in the Hindu religion, is where they discharge their waste unchecked.

“This dumping is mainly unrestricted by the government,” says Kumar. “To make matters worse, people drilled into the waterbed thinking it was less polluted than surface water, but that led to even more of the pollutants getting into the groundwater, which is 7 times dirtier than the tributary. All of the underground reserves are contaminated.“

Still, children continue to swim in the river. “They play in the mud and then they die because of diarrhea. 1600 people a day die of diarrhea. 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water related."

What makes all of this even more devastating is that the suffering is unnecessary. "These things," says Kumar, "are curable.”

Penn State graduate Advait Kumar holds a water bottle to the camera.

Penn State graduate Advait Kumar

"To solve such big issues, you need many perspectives. You need the wisdom of the crowd."— Advait Kumar, electrical engineering graduate and founder of Swajal

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“To solve such big issues, you need many perspectives. You need the wisdom of the crowd.”—Advait Kumar

East Halls

When Kumar arrived in State College to begin his undergraduate degree at Penn State, he held firm to the belief that clean water is a basic right. His mother, a professor in Kanpur, insisted he focus on developing his water purification project. "You must do this,” she said. 

As it turns out, the Penn State community was essential in shaping Kumar’s social venture. “Diversity is key,” says Kumar, who said Penn State, which recently attracted a record number of international students, is potpourri of cultures. “To solve such big issues, you need many perspectives. You need the wisdom of the crowd.” 

It's no accident that Penn State has become an incubator for social entrepreneurs tackling such critical global issues. The University, through the Office of Global Engagement, actively cultivates international relationships by sending students, faculty, and staff abroad and by bringing international students and scholars to its campus. Just this past January, high-level administrators visited the University of Pune, which is located in the second most populous state in India. They held information sessions about Penn State.

When asked how these recruitment trips can help prospective students in India, Kumar says, "It's really important. Penn State has so much to offer, especially the opportunity to add minors to your studies, which was exciting to me. Administrators can fill in the information void that we might have back at home."

Indian boys walk past a Swajal water machine.

Boys walk past Swajal machine

Currently, Swajal employs between ten and fifteen people. The Swajal business model aims to empower locals by facilitating small business loans. Advait believes it's working. One Swajal owner has even created water debit cards.

IMAGE: Advait Kumar

Swajal, which means "clean water" in Sanskrit, is no larger than a vending machine, tucks easily into a small space, and is sustainable. 

Swajal is born

You might think that in order to tackle a global issue like water scarcity, one would need a quiet office and plenty of time to think. Not so, says Kumar, who immersed himself in the project while living in East Halls on campus. The atmosphere could be electric, he said, and always bustling. And that's where he devised Swajal, an elegant water purification unit that’s no larger than a vending machine and tucks easily into a small space. It's also sustainable.

Swajal, which means “clean water” in Sanskrit, can run on or off the electrical grid using a solar panel. “It dispenses cold and hot water, but people do need to bring their own containers,” says Kumar. This flexibility makes it ideal for regions prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.

How effective are the Swajal machines? Extremely effective, says Kumar. In fact, the water dispensed far exceeds guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), who recommend that the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) in excellent drinking quality water be less than 300 milligrams per liter. Swajal stations are capable of producing water at a quality of less than 60 TDS.

There’s another problem linked to water scarcity: poverty. Kumar and his partners do not want to get into what he calls the “business of water.”

“It’s ironic,” he says, “that the same company discharging waste into the Ganges sells bottles of water in the same area.”  Swajal aims to empower communities by facilitating micro loans to set up centers, turning locals into small business owners. “We want to create a web of super cheap water distribution centers.”

To get Swajal off of the ground, Kumar needed all the help he could get. Conceived of in the States, it was funded by international organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership. The venture has received donations from the governments of the United Kingdom, Norway, and Switzerland, while the parts are manufactured in China.

"It’s almost as if everyone around the world was ready to tackle the water problems of a small family in rural India," he said. "I've already accomplished more than I ever imagined. The goal was never to make this big. If I can save one child from dying, one person, that's enough."

Team Swajal

Advait Kumar says he couldn't have launched Swajal without the help of his partners.

Dr. Vibha Tripathi, Director, is a graduate and PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. She specializes in the research and development of thin film solar cells. Under her supervision, IIT Kanpur developed expertise in flexible organic solar cells.

Danny Kennedy, Adviser, is the co-founder and president of Sungevity, Inc. He is a clean-technology entrepreneur, environmental activist, and author. While at Sungevity, he won a Planet Forward Innovator of the Year award from the PBS program Planet Forward. 

Dr. Rashmi Sanghi is currently working as a Research Scientist at the LNM Institute of Information Technology, Jaipur. She earned her PhD in chemistry from the University of Allahabad, India and has more than 75 international journal publications to her credit.