Water Wizards

East Sac couple brings clean drinking water to Kenya

By Jessica Laskey
July 2023

A cardboard box can save lives.

Don’t believe me? Ask Robert Metcalf, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Sacramento State and co-founder of International Water and Health Alliances.

With his wife, Mary Beth, a retired physician, Metcalf helps raise funds to support an organization called Friends of the Old, or FOTO, a community group in Lower Nyakach, Kenya.

The program provides reading glasses for elderly people, seeds for the neediest households, education for girls and, perhaps most importantly, water-treatment supplies.

“The main goal of FOTO is to eliminate waterborne diseases in Lower Nyakach and to be an example of what can be accomplished by a community-based organization—at low cost—to improve community health,” Metcalf says.

Where does the cardboard box come in? Metcalf has developed a portable microbiology laboratory containing water-testing supplies and instructions that allow nearly anyone to test water in rivers, streams, ponds and shallow wells for E. coli, the bacteria that causes diarrhea. The lab arrives in an easy-to-handle cardboard box.

“Safe drinking water is a basic human right,” says the microbiologist and longtime East Sac resident. Yet more than 2 billion people across the globe lack safe drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates 829,000 people die annually from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking water, hand hygiene and sanitation.

With the support and knowledge of Metcalf and International Water and Health Alliances, FOTO has brought portable labs and low-cost water-treatment options to thousands of people across 13 locations in Lower Nyakach.

“There are now 70,000 people in Lower Nyakach who are no longer having waterborne disease despite having highly contaminated drinking sources,” Metcalf says. “The goal is zero. The FOTO strategy could be replicated in millions of villages in low-income countries to eliminate the scourge of waterborne diseases.”

Once water is tested with the portable lab and bacteria is found, the question of disinfection becomes paramount. Enter one of Metcalf’s other specialties: solar box cooking.

“I was the first person in Sacramento to get a box cooker,” says Metcalf, who pegs the first day he used one to June 20, 1978—his son’s second birthday. Metcalf has solar cooked more than 6,000 meals in 20 foreign countries. He co-founded Solar Cookers International in 1987.

“There are 3 billion people around the world who have sunshine, as we do, but think they need to have a fire for cooking,” he says. “It’s so exciting to show people that you can put food in a solar cooker and a couple hours later, you lift up the lid, steam comes out and it’s cooked!”

Solar cookers are important in the fight against contaminated water. In a CooKit, Metcalf’s preferred model for its simple design and ease of use, reflective panels concentrate the sun’s rays onto a pot inside a plastic bag in the center of the cooker. Amplified rays create enough heat to cook food or pasteurize water.

“You don’t actually have to boil water to make it safe,” Metcalf says. “Solar water pasteurization occurs at 65 degrees Celsius, or 149 Fahrenheit. That’s hot! Within three seconds, 90% of the bacteria has been killed.”

Metcalf brought solar water pasteurization to Djibouti and Sierra Leone in the 1980s. When he connected with the FOTO project in Kenya in the early 2000s, liquid chlorine was added as yet another way to make water safe. Now Metcalf’s International Water and Health Alliances helps FOTO buy and distribute more than 9,300 bottles of liquid chlorine each month to households and schools.

“Mary Beth and I fund the FOTO project as an example,” Metcalf says. “You don’t have to get a grant or have a lot of money to actually connect with people and empower a community.”

For information, visit waterinternational.org and imageevent.com/bobmetcalf.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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