Humanitarian innovation tested in the field: the example of the Orisa water purifier

Photo taken in Djibo by Sebastien Batangouna Banzouzi, WASH site manager at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina FASO @SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

Humanitarian action is made up of commitment and concrete responses, without which it is only words. In order to provide these responses in an efficient manner, and to meet the needs of the people being helped, innovative technical solutions play a decisive role, multiplying the time saved, the number of people assisted, and the impact of the aid. This notion of innovation is present in all areas of our work (food security, health, shelter, resilience, etc.), and of course in the technical area of WASH (water, hygiene and sanitation).

The paradigm shift sometimes consists, without revolutionizing the technical solution itself, in providing actors and beneficiaries in the field with an easy-to-use, reliable response adapted to the entire spectrum of interventions, from emergency to development, in terms of individual, family or collective access to safe drinking water. This is the idea behind the Orisa water purifier proposed by Fonto De Vivo, a company co-founded by Anthony Cailleau, a specialist in R&D, and David Monnier, a former humanitarian who has worked for 14 years in a variety of difficult areas: Liberia, Iraq, Comoros, Guinea, Afghanistan… He was able to measure the need for easy and safe means of access to water for populations impacted by security, climate or epidemic crises. The development of the Orisa purifier was done, starting in 2017, in partnership with researchers from the universities of Nantes (where Anthony Cailleau and David Monnier met, and decided to found Fonto De Vivo) and Vendée. A focus group of six French NGOs was set up to specify their needs in terms of purification and related logistics. Then a design firm in Nantes and a design office in Vendée specialized in plastics finalized the product, which started to be marketed in 2021.

In concrete terms, it is a portable and autonomous purifier, modest in size (42.5 x 17 x 12cm), weighing 2.1 kg, operating by manual pumping, intuitive, and conforming to the quality guidelines for drinking water of the WHO. The ultrafiltration is done by hollow fiber membranes through which the water passes. The purifier is adaptable to different types of containers, tanks, and treats surface water (wells, streams…).

The test bed for a tool intended for humanitarian use is its implementation in the field. In this respect, the intervention carried out by the NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Djibo, Burkina-Faso (emergency program), is significant, as for the potential of the Orisa purifier. The particular context of the town of Djibo, which is under blockade by armed groups, has transformed a critical situation into a humanitarian emergency. Even before the blockade, Djibo was affected by the increasing scarcity of water resources due to climate change, and was home to a large number of displaced persons in the Sahel. As of March 31, 2002, according to the Burkinabe government agency that registers internally displaced persons, there were 283,428 displaced persons in Djibo, out of a resident population of approximately 50,000. In January, armed groups forcibly displaced people from surrounding villages; according to OCHA, 36,532 people arrived in less than two months. The tension on drinking water resources was at its highest. Then the blockade was declared on February 17, laying mines on the access roads and attacking any vehicle or person attempting to enter or leave the town. Finally, armed groups sabotaged water points and water access infrastructure between February 21 and March 13: destruction of a generator in the Office National de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement network (which supplied 2/3 of the population), two of the three generators supplying the pumping stations serving the public network (reducing water production by 80%), and six of the twelve solar-powered adductions, put out of service by shooting at the storage tanks… According to estimates by the WASH cluster, at least 220. According to WASH Cluster estimates, at least 220,000 people have lost access to protected water sources as of 3/17/2022 due to these attacks. The population of Djibo, as Sébastien Batangouna, EHA SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL site manager in Burkina Faso, recounts, “was reduced to digging makeshift holes in the dry dam bed by hand, extracting insufficient quantities of murky water, or to drawing from a few wells or stagnant surface water. In addition, there have been numerous attacks on people collecting water. Access to water has become an issue of pressure on the population for armed groups.

Photo taken in Djibo by Sebastien Batangouna Banzouzi, WASH site manager at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina FASO @SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

In this context, and in a city that is only connected by helicopter to the rest of the country, the traditional WASH responses, as explained by Lise Florin, WASH Coordinator at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina Faso, are no longer adapted: “Too dangerous to repair vandalized water points and generators, water-trucking unthinkable because water points inaccessible and fuel supply limited by the blockade, installation of bladders (flexible tanks) ruled out, because a treatment station would have been too visible and pumping difficult in makeshift holes, finally limited access to the dam for security reasons.” The only remaining solution was to treat homes and/or communities, using unconventional water sources (surface water scattered throughout the city) if necessary. A “discreet” and safe solution, therefore, which consisted in “diverting”, to use the words of Baptiste LECUYOT, Head of the EHA – Technical Expertise and Quality of Programs Unit at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL headquarters, “the use of purifiers normally more suitable for home water treatment, by setting up collective filtration points where people would come to fetch filtered water, without having to set up larger facilities“. 242 community volunteers were recruited and trained, 64 filtration points were set up, and a mobile team of 50 volunteers was assigned to go out and educate households on hygiene and home water treatment. To date, 500 Orisa purifiers have been deployed in Djibo by SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL.

Even if the intervention of SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Djibo is still ongoing, we can already see that, as Sebastien Batangouna points out, “The handling, use, maintenance and repair of the Orisa purifiers has been easy, as has the training of the national staff and day laborers. This simplicity was reinforced, as Lise Florin reminds us, “by the tutorials made available on the Internet by Fonto De Vivo“. Lise Florin adds that, in addition to their discretion and simplicity, “these purifiers have proven to be faster than the chemical “PUR” treatment: between 120 L/H and 180 L/H for ORISA filters, compared to 40 L/H for PUR. Also less voluminous: 4 times less 20L buckets are needed to cover the same number of beneficiaries, transportation and storage are therefore easier and less expensive. Finally, the water is of better quality for the people rescued, because it is simply chlorinated after filtration to avoid recontamination of the water during transport/storage. In Djibo, these purifiers have been used intensively, from 4 to 6 hours a day, producing about 100 L/H each, or 4 days’ worth of water for a “normal” family. Of course, pumping requires a minimum of physical strength, but given the context and the emergency, this response proved to be the most relevant, efficient and discreet. It should be mentioned, however, that non-compliance (related to a supplier) was found in Djibo, on a number of Orisa purifiers. The problem was immediately recognized by Fonto De Vivo, which implemented solutions, as the purifiers were repairable: new parts (rings) were tested and sent to Burkina Faso by express mail; and, in addition to the stock of membranes already on site, new ones are being sent to replace those that had a problem (with the remote support of Fonto De Vivo, and knowing that these membranes must be changed anyway after a certain time of use)

SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL (which had already used the Orisa purifier in Niger in a limited way in health centers), has also deployed it in Haiti in schools, and plans to use it in Mali for emergency response. Allassane Traore, EHA Dakar coordinator, emphasizes that this tool is interesting “for interventions with transhumant populations or those affected by recurrent displacements, often forgotten by humanitarian responses and particularly at risk when it comes to access to drinking water.

@MSF, Madagascar, avril 2022

In addition to SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, other NGOs use the Orisa purifier, such as MSF in Ukraine (in health care facilities) and in Madagascar (with communities). Its very good bacterial (99.999999%, i.e. LOG 8) and viral (99.999%, i.e. LOG 5) filtration performances make it an obvious infection prevention tool, but, as Jérôme Leglise, Water and Sanitation Referent at MSF’s Operational Support Pole, points out, a specific technical innovation was of particular interest to MSF: its backwashing system using purified water, limiting contamination during washing. The medical NGO considers this purifier to be particularly suitable for exploratory missions, small bases or isolated health structures, specific communities far from urban networks, and people at risk (pregnant women, immunocompromised people, young children, measles cases) in a post-consultation or hospitalization “discharge kit”.

Finally, the CDCS (Crisis and Support Center of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs) has ordered 405 Orisa purifiers, in order to build up a contingency stock to respond to potential emergencies (natural disasters, conflicts, pandemics…).

In the end, this tool shows that, between the challenge of developing a product and the test of the field, humanitarian innovation is – also – a form of risk-taking… necessary…

Pierre Brunet

Writter and Humanitarian


To go further : 


PS/ Your donation (make a donation) allows us to publish and develop Humanitarian Challenges, a free and independent website. Thank you for your support.  

Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian aid and volunteered in Rwanda, which had been devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of program coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.

Upon his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation of writer.

Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in the North-East of Syria, in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.

Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy:

  • January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum” by Calmann-Lévy, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
  • September 2008 : publication of his second novel ” JAB “, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl who grew up in Morocco and who will become a professional boxer as an adult.
  • March 2014: release of his third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of his mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at 31 years old.
  • End of August 2017: release of his fourth novel “The Triangle of Uncertainty”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” to Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.

In parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as a co-writer of synopses for television series or feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing columns or articles, particularly on international news.

Will Collective Inefficiency be over in March 2023?

In March 2023, the United Nations is due to hold a “rare” conference on water. Gérard Payen urges the international community to overcome its inertia and make this summit a historic event, during which important political decisions will be taken and an annual agenda will be set to achieve Goal 6 of the 2030 SDGs.

Water settling ponds and community participation to dig trenches in Béni, DRC ©Solidarités International 2005

Governments discuss freshwater at such a large number of international events that their work is now fragmented, scattered across disparate events, with no guiding principles and very little coordination. This results in confusion for the governments themselves, as well as for most other stakeholders in the international community. UN-Water does its best to ensure technical coordination, but the political coordination of various water-related activities remains to be defined. All these events are nonetheless useful forums for developing knowledge and preparing future decisions. For example, the World Water Forums in Mexico (2006) and Istanbul (2009) paved the way for the human right to safe drinking water to be recognized in 2010, while the Marseille Forum (2012) and the Budapest Summit (2013) led to the adoption of a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water in 2015.

In March 2023, the United Nations will hold an International Water Conference. It will be jointly presided by Tajikistan and the Netherlands, and will be attended by all governments. This will be a major event since only UN summits can give rise to global political decisions that countries consider binding and that benefit from long-term operational monitoring. The many intergovernmental meetings held in parallel to UN efforts may yield useful conclusions, but in the absence of institutional follow-up mechanisms, these findings generally do not progress very far. Within the United Nations, most of the meetings devoted to water are organized by UN agencies or Secretariats for international treaties that specialize in a particular field, only covering certain water issues. An international conference on all freshwater issues (all types of water as well as sanitation) is therefore a very rare event at the UN. Water issues are multiplying and becoming increasingly interrelated with every passing year. They underpin the vast majority of SDGs, making the 2023 conference a very rare opportunity to take useful collective decisions to improve the global organization on water issues.

United Nations general assembly, September 2020

The SDGs: A Coherent Vision

In 2015, a revolution took place. The adoption of the SDGs was the first time that governments had taken all the major water issues into consideration within a global program. Prior to that, collective goals only existed for drinking water and access to toilets. In 2015, this very patchy perspective was filled out with supplementary targets for water resources management, pollution and wastewater management, water ecosystems, flooding, public participation, water in schools, adaptation to climate change, urban planning, etc. In short, a complete vision on water issues was born. Twenty SDG targets are directly related to water. That’s great news! But unfortunately, nothing much has changed since 2015 in intergovernmental circles. It is as if the silos of the past have taken over again. In 2018, at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), governments discussed water for three hours but took no new decisions. Worse still, during their first SDG Summit in October 2019, they boasted about their progress on access to safe drinking water, in stark contrast with global statistics predicting that the 2030 target for universal access to drinking water will not be reached until the 23rd century at the pace of progress resulting from current policies. Since 2015, no intergovernmental work has been done to acknowledge and rectify the insufficient progress towards water-related SDG targets. This lack of activity on all water issues stems directly from the fact that there is no specific UN political forum for water. Unlike the majority of SDG key topics, which each have their own intergovernmental platform with regular political meetings, water is not so fortunate and, politically speaking, has been left behind. There is a dire need for collective coherence and efficiency, but this is very seldom discussed since many institutional stakeholders, countries and UN agencies see more interest in maintaining the status quo.

Water tower in Koniba, Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

A UN Political Summit on Water is Much Too Rare an Event

Some say that the 2023 UN Water Conference will be the first since the Mar-del-Plata conference in 1977. This shows very little regard for the UN Sustainable Development Commission meeting in 2005, which brought together all the world’s governments for two weeks and resulted in a nine-page UN resolution on integrated water resources management, ecosystem preservation, drinking water and sanitation, including the treatment and reuse of wastewater. However, since 2005, the only significant UN resolutions on water have been the inception of the International Year of Sanitation (2008), the recognition of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (2010) and the adoption of the SDGs (2015).

The 2023 UN Conference will therefore be one of the very rare events where decisions can be taken on all water issues. This will be an opportunity to make intergovernmental work on water more effective. It will be an opportunity to streamline intergovernmental work, if participants decide to organize an annual UN intergovernmental meeting on all water-related SDG targets, as is the case for the other SDG key topics. This would ensure political coherence between the many disparate existing efforts and enable the organization of efforts to achieve SDG 6 and all the global water-related goals. A decision of this kind cannot be taken in 2023 without active preparation and sufficient anticipation. This will be one of the main issues at stake during the 9th World Water Forum that will take place in Dakar in 2022.

Kick-off meeting in preparation for the 9th World Water Forum, spring 2019 ©WorldWaterForum

Will the 2023 Conference take the decision to institute regular UN political meetings on all water-related SDG targets? If so, the conference will be quite historic. But if we miss this opportunity, the international water community will only have itself to blame for remaining collectively inefficient, for the lack of political attention paid to water and for the slow progress towards water-related SDG targets.

By Gérard Payen, former Water Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and Vice President of the French Water Partnership and Astee


Who is Gérard Payen ?

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of numerous water-related global sustainable development objectives. Today, he is a director of 3 major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilise the international community for a better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. At the same time, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce the world’s water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water problems that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.