Hot countries, such as Yemen, and other warm regions of the world are prone to drought and water contamination. However, along with the hot climate grows a tree that can attract and kill bacteria in the water. This thin-branched and the gangly-looking tree is scientifically known as Moringa Oleifera or, more commonly called, drumstick tree because of its seeds. Some have even called it the miracle tree.

Few research groups have studied how to use the seeds from Moringa to purify drinking water. However, a group of researchers from Pennsylvania State University is currently developing a Moringa sand with hopes of finding a way to make it easier for people to filter their own water in their homes.

“The idea is that as long as people have [ordinary] sand and Moringa seeds, they can clean water,” said Stephanie Velegol, a chemical engineer who currently leads the Pennsylvania State research.

Moringa trees are very common in many water-stressed regions of Asia, Africa, and South America. One mature tree can produce as many as 15,000 seeds. “We always wanted a sustainable approach,” Velegol said. She and her colleagues recently published their research in November in the journal Langmuir.

To create the antibacterial sand, the team crushed the Moringa seeds and mixed them with water. After this, they poured the water and seed mixture onto the ordinary sand, discarding the solid bits of Moringa seeds. They rinsed the sand with the result of active antibacterial protein from the Moringa seeds tightly stuck on the surfaces of the grains of sand.  The Moringa sand could now kill E. coli bacteria present in water, and could even turn muddy water clearer.

Now, the only challenge is to determine how effective it is against other bacteria. People with limited access to clean water might be able to make their own antibacterial sand filter that’s both natural and affordable. However, after a couple of uses, the crushed seeds in the water will soon become dirty again. So, for proper use, it is required to replace the seeds with fresher ones or the water will become dirty once more. “Water treated with crude [Moringa] extract should not be stored for more than 24 hours,” wrote Habauka Kwaambwa, a chemist who studies Moringa seeds at the University of Botswana.

“It is a big problem,” said Jacqueline Firth. Firth is a physician in Botswana who provides tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS care, but during her time as a medical student at Brown University, she studied Moringa seeds for water purification purposes.

Moringa seeds prove to be more appealing than chlorine, which many governments distribute to people who drink untreated water. Based on Firth’s research, villagers she worked with in India hated the taste of chlorinated water.

They were happier to use Moringa seeds, which they now use for cooking. Fewer individuals have continued to chlorinate water despite its diarrheal-preventive qualities.

When it comes to clean water for people, it’s not just about the technology. “There are a lot of social challenges that need to be addressed,” Velegol said. “I think it’s a good start to be using materials that they already have.”

As of now, Velegol is testing how many seeds are needed to clean a given volume of water. She had to do research on the Moringa sand and see what other microorganisms it can kill aside from E. coli.

If the Moringa sand isn’t enough to make contaminated water drinkable, then it could be used alongside chlorine to improve the taste. However, according to Velegol, one of the challenges is the lack of funding. Many studies have confirmed Moringa’s antibacterial properties in the lab, but there is little research on how well Moringa seeds can purify water.

Firth ran one of the only field tests, reported in 2010 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. She found crushed Moringa seeds didn’t significantly clean water in the village. “We’re still not sure why it didn’t work,” she said.

Meanwhile, scientists are working on different Moringa water treatment processes, as many studies have shown it works in the series of lab tests they have conducted.

“I come from a village where the source of water is the river and you find situations whereby people upstream are bathing and washing whereas those downstream are drawing water to drink. No wonder there are health problems due to the poor water quality,” Kwaamba said. “I believe that such a filter is not far off from being used by the rural folks – in the future.”

How This Can Help Yemen’s Water Crisis

A tiny proportion of Yemeni families has access to municipal supply. State-run water companies only supply some households in the major cities and 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas. In Sanaa, only 40% of the houses are connected – and they’re considered lucky if clean water comes out of their taps more than twice a week. Another issue is that 60% of Yemen’s water is lost through leaks. The situation is even worse in the city of Taiz, where water comes out of the tap only once a month.

Also, 19.3 million Yemenis do not have access to clean water and sanitation. Of these, 50% have been directly cut off from these basics of life by the conflict. That’s why the use of a more natural and cheaper option, like Moringa seeds, to purify water is a big help to our citizens.

In the last three weeks, at least 184 people in Yemen have died from an unexpected spike in a cholera outbreak that began in October, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Authorities declared a state of emergency in the nation’s capital, Sanaa, which has been hit hard by the epidemic, experiencing 151 deaths from April 27 to May 13.  This outbreak is an “unprecedented disaster” as the crisis continues to mount and rise.

According to WHO, the destruction of Yemen’s water and sanitation facilities has aided the spread of the disease, which is water-borne and transmitted through contaminated water and food.

The long-term solution is investing in technology that aims to develop natural products like the use of Moringa seeds in purifying water, rather than opting for chemical purification treatments. Natural filters are more environmentally-friendly and cost-efficient. But, most of all, they can make it easy for people from all walks of life to filter their own water in their homes affordably and safely.

-Haitham Alaini