Carbon for Water: A New Sustainable Finance Model Saves Lives and the Environment

An innovative carbon finance scheme tackles several issues at once: climate change, deforestation, poverty, disease and lack of clean water

Clean water is something that most people take for granted. You probably just have to go to your kitchen and turn on the tap. But almost 1 billion people (about 1 in every 8 individuals) don't have access to clean water. The Water Project says that lack of access to clean water is "one of the greatest causes of poverty in Africa also the most overlooked" problems.

The organization notes that the United Nations estimates that "Sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water; that's the same as a whole year's worth of labor by France's entire workforce." Between clean water and wages, what would you choose?


But the lack of clean water doesn't just keep people mired in poverty—it also kills. Almost 5,000 children in Africa die every single day because of it, many of them from such easily treatable ailments like diarrhea. For those of us living in the West, this figure is incomprehensible. That it continues, unconscionable.

A new and innovative sustainable investment model hopes to help. Developed by Vestergaard Frandsen, a Swiss "profit for purpose" company that specializes in disease control textiles, the "LifeStraw® Carbon for Water" program uses the market mechanisms of carbon finance to tackle not only the clean water problem, but also climate change and deforestation. The initiative was rolled out in Kenya last year.


In Kenya (and indeed, in many parts of the developing world), one of the primary ways to clean contaminated water is to boil it over an open wood fire. While this method gets the job done by killing bacteria, viruses, parasites and other harmful microorganisms, it has significant corollary problems. Firstly, burning wood emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. Secondly, getting the wood causes deforestation, which not only contributes to global warming as trees emit the carbon they've been storing when they're cut down, but also eliminates any future potential of carbon storage of those trees. Thirdly, deforestation destroys ecosystems upon which many species depend. Clearly, burning wood isn't a good idea for several reasons.

So last year, Vestergaard Frandsen distributed 900,000 water filters to approximately 90 percent of households in Western Kenya. Instantly, over four million residents had access to safe, US EPA-quality drinking water at home, without having to "burn and boil" or causing more deforestation. Each filter can purify about 18,000 liters of water—enough to support a family of five for three years.


The water filters reduce the region's carbon emissions, which increases the amount of carbon credits they have to sell to companies and governments of developed countries seeking to support carbon reduction schemes. By purchasing carbon credits, value is created in reducing the overall global greenhouse gas total.

Under the Kyoto Protocol—which chose the carbon credit/carbon offset route instead of the carbon tax route to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—one carbon credit allows the owner of that credit to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas. For companies that have reached the limit of their own reduction programs, buying credits is one way to contribute to the overall global reduction (it doesn't matter who is making the carbon emission reduction, as long as the global total is reduced). Companies also burnish their green image by purchasing carbon credits.

For Vestergaard Frandsen, the revenue generated from selling the carbon credits will be reinvested into the Carbon for Water program to make it sustainable over a ten-year period. Annually, the program aims to produce around two million tonnes of carbon emission reductions.

According to ClimateCare, the UK-based carbon offset company that will commercialize the credits, the initiative is "the largest water treatment project ever undertaken in a developing country without government or public sector funding."


"With millions of people in developing countries still lacking safe drinking water, and increased pressure on development aid to do more with less, innovating new ways to finance solutions to these problems is absolutely critical," said Vestergaard Frandsen CEO and owner Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen. "I believe that our LifeStraw® Carbon For Water programme blazes a trail for a wide range of projects that bring the public and private sectors together using carbon financing to address multiple public health and environmental issues."

It's a simple yet ingenious market-based sustainable finance initiative that cuts right to the heart of what United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has been arguing for several years: "The challenges that we face are interrelated, so, if we are smart about it, if we spot and utilize the inter-connections among these problems, solutions to each problem can be solutions to all."

Now that's an approach that should help quench the thirst for sustainability...and clean water.



The Water Project. Poverty in Africa Begins With a Lack of Clean Water. August 17, 2011. Accessed June 2, 2012.
Lynne Beavis. ClimateCare: investment models for the developing world. Guardian Professional Network. May 31, 2012. Accessed June 2, 2012.
Vestergaard Frandsen. How Carbon for Water Works. April 14, 2011. Accessed June 2, 2012.
ClimateCare. Carbon Finance Funds Revolutionary Water Purification Project in Africa. March 9, 2012. Accessed June 2, 2012.
Ban Ki-Moon. Sustainability Equals Prosperity. May 18, 2009. Accessed June 2, 2012.

image: The local residents of Turkana in northwest Kenya dig water wells in the dried-up river beds. At a certain depth, a brown, muddy liquid emerges, which will be consumed by both people and animals. It is the only drinking water available to the residents of many communities in Turkana, a marginalized region where very little money has been invested to develop water distribution centers or to dig wells. (credit: Irina Fuhrmann/Oxfam, Wikimedia Commons)