Getting Access to Clean Water for Free in Kenya

Using carbon credits, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen and his company Vestergaard Frandsen plan to provide clean water to millions of the world's poorest people for free. Close to 1 million water filters will be delivered to Kenya as part of the Carbon for Water campaign. I recently caught up with Vestergaard Frandsen to discuss his innovative project.

This will be the first global health project financed through the carbon market. The hope is that it will provide safe drinking water for 10 years to millions in Kenya, while reducing carbon emissions by a million tons annually. How does carbon-for-water work?

VIDEO: Kenyans receiving clean water through carbon credits.Play
LifeStraw: Clean Water Through Carbon Credits

We [are] going door-to-door over five weeks installing the LifeStraw in every home in the Western Province: nearly 1 million households. Training people to use it, and then through a very rigorous monitoring system, we're able to document how much water is consumed, how much less firewood is burned [a practice commonly used to clean the water], and thereby know how many reductions are generated. We can then sell [emission reductions] on the international market as carbon credit, and finance this entire program.

How is this going to impact the lives of people in Kenya?

Access to safe drinking water leads to better health. Diarrhea is the leading cause of death for children under 5. And if you look across all age groups, respiratory infection is actually the leading cause of death in Africa. A lot of it is caused by indoor air pollution that is linked to water purification and cooking. Finally, girls are often fetching water or fetching firewood rather than going to school, so you have the added benefit of improved education access.

[The program started] April 26, to be fully installed May 31. We have donated over 600,000 water filters, and are well on our way to reaching our goal of 900,000 [We're talking about] 4.5 million people spread over four counties in the Western Province, so it's a huge geographical reach to cover. You can follow us live on Google Earth, as we'll be doing 40,000 uploads per day. You will be able to see the person from each household, the person who we train with her water filter, the time of the training, and the GPS coordinates.

And that's all going to be on Google Earth?

We're building this platform for very rigorous monitoring, which has never been done in public health before, and I think that's why we are getting a lot of interest from some of the donor countries. Because you have a very unique model here for pay-for-performance that the entire development world could learn a lot from. It can sort of point the way for the future of how development aid should be handled.

Who's paying to get the water filters installed?

So the upfront investment all comes from the company Vestergaard. That means pretty much everything from the investment in the water filters, to the 4,000 people who will go door-to-door to install. Every six months, independent validators will come in and monitor and verify the data sets that we have on households, regarding how much water they've consumed and how much less firewood is being burned. Once that data set is independently verified by an auditor, a certificate is issued which we use to sell carbon credits. Those carbon credits will then be sold on the voluntary market to other companies in a business-to-business deal. We're expecting to be repaid over the course of the next couple of years.

LifeStraw was criticized in the past because it was not considered the most economical way of getting people safe drinking water. How are you going about it differently this time?

The debate on cost-effectiveness in the past was on the LifeStraw that was handed out to individuals that were used to carry along and to drink water wherever you were. LifeStraw Family is an entirely different technology, different design. It serves a family of up to six people with safe drinking water for up to three years, so the cost effectiveness of LifeStraw Family as a household tool is entirely different. We absolutely expect this to be the lowest cost drinking water available.

How did you come up with this idea to distribute this through the carbon market?

Knowing that going to scale in public health is something that takes a lot of external funding, we were looking for a new innovative financing mechanism. One of the things we were really interested was this multibillion dollar carbon market that we were looking to tap into for public health. At NASA's launch council last year, I ran into some astronauts who had a similar idea and were working on it, so we sat down and compared notes to be able to jointly put the puzzle together, and have been working with them ever since.

So you're working with the NASA astronauts to do this?

Yes, we are. I met with NASA astronaut Ron Garan last year and learned about an important project that Manna Energy, a social enterprise he co-founded, is working on to provide clean water to a community in Rwanda, and earn carbon credits. Since this time, we have been working together on Vestergaard's Kenya project to accomplish similar goals but on a far larger scale. This new project is solely funded and run by Vestergaard.

What do you think of the future of carbon markets: are they sustainable?

My dream answer is, of course, yes. I think that the carbon market is certainly here to stay. I'm saying this while knowing that there are a few things that we need to think about: The architecture in the carbon market is such that countries need to be developed, and countries need to be able to pollute in order to clean up. You're rewarded for your ability to clean up, rather than for not polluting in the first place, and it is for this reason that less than 5 percent of carbon trade today includes Africa. They're not developed enough to pollute, which is what our program is addressing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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