Singapore firm wins award for making portable water filters inspired by bicycle pumps

Wateroam's (from left) CEO David Pong, chief technology officer Vincent Loka and chief marketing officer Lim Chong Tee with the Roamfilter Plus. PHOTO: WATEROAM

ABU DHABI - A Singapore-based company's award-winning water filtering device - which has been providing clean drinking water to disaster-struck and rural communities worldwide - was inspired by an ordinary bicycle pump.

In 2015, when Wateroam's chief technology officer Vincent Loka saw a villager in Kelantan, Malaysia, using a bicycle pump to fill up his bike's tyres, it got him thinking about how filtered water could flow out through a similar mechanism.

Over the next two years, the company worked on developing Roamfilter Plus - a lightweight, portable system that looks and works like a bicycle pump.

Once a tube connected to the device is dipped into a silt-ridden river or traditional well, the user just has to push down the piston, and out flows clean water.

To date, the Roamfilter Plus and its related products have been used in 38 countries, bringing clean water to around 207,000 people.

The company's efforts earned it the water champion accolade on Monday (Jan 17), at a global sustainability award organised by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It is the second Singapore company to win the award, after water solutions provider Ecosoftt in 2019.

The Zayed Sustainability Prize recognises companies and high schools across the world that have delivered innovative and impactful solutions to needy communities in health, food, energy and water.

Each winner across the categories - including Wateroam - received a prize of US$600,000 (S$800,000).

The annual prize was formed in 2008 to honour and continue the UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan's legacy of humanitarianism and sustainable development.

By 2015, one-year-old Wateroam already had 10 different prototypes and filtration products, including a novel one that resembles a plastic bag.

But the team was not satisfied with its existing products, as it wanted to create a longer-lasting device which could meet a whole community's needs. One bag-like filter could serve only up to seven people.

The Roamfilter Plus - which weighs less than 3kg - can serve around 100 people, with 15 to 20 litres of potable water for each person daily. The device can provide 250 litres of water per hour.

"During a humanitarian crisis situation, it's very important that a larger amount of water can be provided to a larger community," said Mr David Pong, 32, chief executive and co-founder of Wateroam.

"We've been able to keep the cost of water to less than US$2 per person per year."

A Roamfilter Plus costs US$350, and is usually bought by non-governmental organisations or regional governments that serve affected communities or remote places. Countries using the system include Malaysia, Cambodia and Vanuatu.

Children in Cambodia being introduced to the Wateroam filtering device in 2018. PHOTO: WATEROAM

About 50 devices were recently deployed in Cebu in the Philippines, to provide clean water to between 5,000 and 10,000 people affected by Typhoon Rai.

The device is equipped with ultra filtration technology, where membranes within the cylindrical apparatus filter out bacteria, viruses and parasites from the water.

However, the system does not remove other contaminants such as heavy metals or lead, and further water treatment procedures would be needed, said Mr Pong.

But under the World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Scheme to Evaluate Household Water Treatment Technologies, the device earned two stars, which means it has comprehensive protection in its ability to remove pathogens from drinking water.

According to WHO, at least two billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces, as at 2017.

Wateroam is aiming to bring clean, drinking water to 30 million people by 2030.

"We aim to do this by expanding our reach into many more countries, and look into local production in those countries to further bring down the system's costs," said Mr Pong.

Wateroam was formed in 2014 by Mr Pong, Mr Loka and Mr Lim Chong Tee, now the company’s chief marketing officer, under an entrepreneurship programme when they were students at the National University of Singapore.

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