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Published on: 13/07/2011

A project to use carbon credits to finance the free delivery of water filters to 4.5 million people has been sharply criticised by a US expert. Mulago Foundation director Kevin Starr calls Verstergaard Frandsen's Carbon for Water initiative a "loopy funding scheme paired with a lousy public health solution". The company maintains it is providing a sustainable solution by guaranteeing free service and repair for the next 10 years.

The Verstergaard Frandsen company, in partnership with the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, has delivered 900,000 of their LifeStraw Family water filters free-of-charge to households in the Western Province of Kenya through their Carbon for Water programme.

Using filters instead of boiling water with firewood will lead to significant reduction in carbon emissions the company says. This earns them carbon credits that they can sell to companies in countries that have carbon caps and exchanges. Vertergaard Frandsen is investing US$ 30 million (Euros 20.7 million) in the project. It expects to generate a CO2 emission reduction of two to 2.5 million tonnes per year which it will sell on the voluntary carbon credit market. The company says it has already made an advance deal worth 1.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions with the US bank JP Morgan Chase, adding that the current market value oscillates between six and 10 euros per tonne.

Mulago Foundation director Kevin Starr wrote that this was a "bogus application of carbon credits" because "people in western Kenya, by and large, don’t boil their water". Starr based this on a Poverty Action Lab study that found

only 25% of householders said they boiled their water, and the research team found that many samples of water claimed as boiled were still contaminated with high levels of e. coli, leading to the conclusion that real boiling rates are probably much lower.

A survey cited by Vestgard Fransden gives found a 29% boiling rate, but the company reportedly used the "suppressed demand" concept to inflate this to 71% for its carbon emission calculations. This percentage is the number of people whose future “demand” for wood to boil water is “suppressed” by getting a LifeStraw Family filter. In Starr's view

it is absurd to project an imaginary future where prospering Kenyans buy more firewood so they can start boiling their water.


the notion that you’re going to prevent lots of carbon going into the atmosphere by distributing water filters is ridiculous, and anyone involved in this charade should be ashamed of themselves—especially the Gold Standard Foundation, which certified it.

A second objection that Kevin Starr raises is that no studies have proven that a positive health impact of the Lifestraw in a real life situation. The only rigorous study on the LifeStraw Family water filter carried out in Congo by Boisson in 2010 was inconclusive but it did find that after 12 months, 24 percent of households didn’t use them at all, and only 56 percent understood how to use them properly.

In one of the comments to Starr's post, Nick Moon described the Lifestraw Family filter as being "complicated, fidgety, and frustrating", especially given the fact that there were simple, locally-made ceramic water filters already available.

The third objection Starr gives is that

the LifeStraw Family water filter is just too damn expensive, and it has to be replaced every three years. There are only two ways that a product like this can get to real scale: the market or free government distribution. The wholesale cost of the device from VF is about $25; the real cost to a customer, if you include distribution and marketing, would be more like $50 to $70.

In a response, Vestgard Fransden CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen counters arguments that the Carbon for Water programme is not sustainable by stressing his company's long-term commitment to the Kenyan initiative:

we will, over the coming two months, build 34 service centers, more than one in each district, where users of LifeStraw can come for free service and repair for the next 10 years. What is also noteworthy about this approach is that a majority of potential revenue that comes in as a result of carbon offset is directly re-invested in on-going community education, communication and monitoring. Actually, the campaign provided employment for more than 8,000 Kenyans across the 31 Western Province districts. Moving forward, another 2,000 Kenyans will be involved in the monitoring, community education and social mobilization annually.

Starr remains unconvinced

projects like Carbon for Water make a mockery of the effort to prevent carbon emissions, and as a physician, it’s especially depressing to see a loopy funding scheme paired with a lousy public health solution. The social sector has got to escape this pattern of bogus idea, hyperventilating media, and eventual, invisible failure.

For more on Kevin Starr's views on (un)sustainable development solutions watch the PopTech video "Lasting Impact".

Source: Kevin Starr, Thirty Million Dollars, a Little Bit of Carbon, and a Lot of Hot Air, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 16 Jun 2011 ; AFP / Terra Daily, 30 Jun 2011

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