Clorox uses social media to help bring safe drinking water to rural parts of Peru

Combining on-the-ground efforts and social media, Clorox's Safe Water Project aims to aid and educate about safe drinking water.

Attendees at SxSW Eco tweet to fill their water bottles.
Image: Clorox

When attendees of the 2014 South by Southwest Eco conference approached Clorox's Twitter-powered water dispenser to fill their water bottles, there was a 1 in 7 chance they'd get a message denying them water.

Of course, in the middle of Austin, Texas at a conference, they could always give the dispenser another shot -- all it took was tweeting with the hashtags #safewaterproject and #fill to get a code and a bottle full of water.

The message Clorox was trying to communicate, though, is that there are other places in the world where clean water is not so easily procured.

In an effort to connect people back home with the plight of other people who live in a country far away and not well-covered in the media, Clorox is encouraging the use of the hashtag #SafeWaterProject or #ProyectoAguaSegura.

Each person who tweets with a hashtag triggers a $1 donation to the project (up to $20,000), which Clorox's public relations and social media manager Rita Gorenberg said is the equivalent of providing an individual with clean water for a month.

This dispenser is part of Clorox's Safe Water Project, a 5-year commitment to bring clean water to 25,000 people in rural villages in northern Peru, said Gorenberg.

The program officially launched in June 2012. Clorox partnered with a local NGO in Peru called PRISMA in a multi-pronged approach that included the installation of bleach dispensers near water sources in said rural villages, as well as an educational program to teach people how and why to use them.

So far, there are 15 water dispensers installed near 5 water sources, which reach about 3,000 people. By the end of the 5-year commitment, there will be 75 dispensers.

Alexis Limberakis is Clorox's director of environmental sustainability. She said they adapted the dispenser model from one that was already in use in Africa, but quickly learned that it would take more than showing folks who to turn a dial on a dispenser in order to get a few drops of bleach into a container of water.

They worked with PRISMA to understand what people in those villages knew and didn't know, and crafted educational materials geared toward everyone from kids to community leaders, to explain that invisible germs in water can make a person sick.

"The physical nature of germs is a difficult thing to grasp unless you've really been trained," she said.

Limberakis said she met a young man who had lost multiple brothers to diarrheal illnesses, and it was probably because of contaminated drinking water.

The decision between dire thirst and dirty water isn't a pretty one, especially when the connection to the dirty water and health issues isn't totally understood. She also had a mother approach her and say that although she'd heard about bleach, this was the first time she understood its use in drinking water.

The US has only understood germs and their relationship to illness in the past 100 years, Gorenberg said. And in times of natural disasters, the government or organizations like the Red Cross tell people to use bleach to disinfect their water. You can still find directions how to do it on the Louisiana state government website relating to Hurricane Katrina.

Aside from the bleach, part of the education includes teaching practices like washing hands, washing containers, and keeping water covered.

If people don't have access to bleach and its residual disinfecting properties, and for example, boil water instead, that water can get re-contaminated, so it's important to prevent that, Limberakis said.

After doing a year of education, Clorox and PRISMA did a survey and found that compared to when they started, 90% in those communities learned that bleach can protect them from getting sick, and 75% could explain that it kills bacteria.

"Because the dispensers are installed right next to the place where they're collecting the water, there's a constant reminder to treat your water and you also watch your neighbors and family and friends doing it, so it creates a cultural norm that's really self-reinforcing," Limberakis said.

They're hoping one way or another, change comes through social behaviors.

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