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Venture funding available to innovators who solve rural Alaska's honeybucket riddle

  • Author: Carey Restino
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published September 28, 2013

In more than one rural Alaska community, the struggle of building and maintaining water systems can be seen on a weekly basis. Water lines break, freeze and fail. Pumps go down. There's no money to fix them. And that's just the places with running water systems. More than 6,000 Alaska homes reportedly lack running water and a flush toilet, despite efforts by the state to get rid of the dreaded honey bucket forever.

Those of us who grew up without indoor plumbing can sympathize with the plight of individuals and communities still without a flush toilet or running water. But the state of Alaska says funding for fixing old village water systems and installing new ones is slimmer than ever.

The state estimates a deficit of more than $650 million between what it needs to solve the state's water and sewer needs and the resources it has to do so. But Alaska isn't the only place in the world struggling to build basic infrastructure in its smaller communities. And in some places, innovative techniques are leading to an improved quality of life.

And that's the inspiration behind a recent challenge presented by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Innovators from around the state, nation and world are invited to submit proposals for ways to provide basic water and sewer service to rural Alaska homes. The top six highest-ranked teams will receive funding to develop written proposals in the next phase of the challenge.

Proposals are due Nov. 15, though several question-and-answer teleconferences will be held before then. In an interview with the Alaska Public Radio Network, Bill Griffith with the DEC said there are many concepts used in other countries that recycle water for some uses, such as the water needed to flush a toilet. Not all the water coming into a home needs to be drinking-water quality, he noted, and a system that makes use of reclaimed or non-potable water may be part of the answer.

In general, the project focuses on decentralized water and sewer treatment systems. The state is hoping the challenge will find a solution to a serious problem through innovation.

"Our goal is to significantly reduce the capital and operating costs of in-home running water and sewer in rural Alaska homes," the challenge's website said.

Griffith said the DEC has seen a good deal of interest among Alaska-based companies, and also fielded calls from around the country as well as some international solicitation.

If a viable solution is found, the state hopes it may be applicable in other countries where similar problems exist — Mongolia and Russia, for example.

While the convenience of being able to turn on a tap and wash your dishes or the ability to flush a toilet cannot be undervalued, there's another reason to hope the state's approach works. Homes that lack water and sewer service are linked to higher rates of skin infection and respiratory illness, especially among the young and the elderly. Residents in Southwest Alaska are said to suffer from rates of invasive pneumococcal disease that are among the highest in the world.

There is something very right about this approach to handling a problem so daunting as running water to homes where water is frozen most of the year. It isn't typical for bureaucrats to throw up their hands, to some degree, and say, "We just don't know the answer. Anyone else want to take a stab at this one?" Humility in the face of a challenge of this magnitude is admirable, because it's obvious that we don't, in fact, have all the answers.

One of the beautiful things about this age that we live in is that we no longer live in isolation — the world is more and more connected — and it is almost certain that somewhere, someone has a solution that could improve the lives of thousands of Alaskans.

Even more, the state is encouraging team collaboration by creating a means for innovators to share their information with others in hopes that a group of like minds working together may well find and refine a solution that one person alone could not.

The idea is to encourage the formation of joint-venture teams that include engineers, innovators, social scientists and people with rural Alaska experience. It would be wonderful if this approach worked, not only from the standpoint of finding a solution to the water problem in rural communities across this state, but also from the perspective of a new way for governmental agencies to approach problems. After all, innovation has always been a major driver of human success.

You can find out more information on this challenge at watersewerchallenge.alaska.gov.

Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com. This commentary was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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