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In Haiti, fighting cholera with a water machine

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As a cholera epidemic sweeps Haiti, a startup called LifeGivingForce delivers clean water to residents using a portable machine.

It was everyone's worst nightmare: cholera has reportedly moved from the rural areas of Haiti to the island nation's capital city, Port-au-Prince.

Now, the main water source to the city is contaminated with a bacteria, and crowded city dwellers are at risk of contracting an infection.

Cholera is hard to control once it makes its way into the water supply. The moment a person drinks the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, it settles into the small intestine. It can take anywhere from several hours to five days before the victim experiences watery diarrhea and vomiting.

If the person doesn't quickly re-hydrate with clean water -- and take a dose of antibiotics -- it can be fatal.

At last count, Haiti's health ministry reported 643 people dead and as many as 10,000 people under treatment by area hospitals. But that's not all: officials worry that as many as 270,000 people could be infected over the next two years, partially the result of poor living conditions after an earthquake shocked the island early this year.

Simply, Haiti has become a breeding ground for epidemics.

Standing in a small restaurant at the Maison Handal in Port-au-Prince, LifeGivingForce CFO Matt Walters remembers watching a CNN segment of a small boy playing in the Artibonite river.

The river was the source of the cholera outbreak.

“He was drinking from the water and splashing around, as any child would, and I realized that that water could kill him if he continued to drink from it," he said. "And I realized that out in our truck, we had a system that would clean the water so that it would be safe for him to drink."

When water infrastructure isn't in place in a disaster area, you have to bring it. That's why LGF co-founder Sung Cho deployed 15 portable water machines in Haiti.

But unlike many companies aiding Haiti, the company is no stranger to the island country: four years ago, LGF co-founder Shane Hackett opened an orphanage.

The decision resonated with Cho, Hacket's longtime friend, whose Korean mother nearly died buried under dead bodies during the Korean War. After she was rescued from the pile, an orphanage took her in for 11 months until she was re-united with her family.

"I talk about a lifeline because that hand saved my mother's life during the Korean War," Cho said. "And now I want to empower women."

It wasn't until the earthquake struck this year that Cho and Hackett incorporated LGF. The duo wrote "giving" into the budget, so that 51 percent of the profits go back into a foundation by the same name that helps women develop self-sustaining businesses.

One of the company's first projects was a microgrid powered by batteries and solar power. Hooked up to a satellite, the microgrid offers an Internet connection.

"I thought he was crazy for suggesting this idea, but thought we better try and do it," Cho said.

The microgrid helped residents give interviews to journalists when the island's traditional infrastructure failed.

The same thinking goes into the company's portable water machines.

"The charity model is broken," Cho said. "By shipping in water, you create a dependency on the West."

Seven LGF staffers are currently working to distribute clean water to Haitians, with hope that the island can begin to sustain itself.

"We had the relationship with the pastors and orphanages," Cho said. "That's when [LGF COO] Jamieson Slough brought the water technology to us and we delivered."

The team is leading with clean water, but plans to expand with other clean technology offerings for developing countries.

"The solution to this crisis needs to be a long-term one, and not one that is only focused on providing safe drinking water for the next six months," Walters said. "What is truly needed is sustainable infrastructure that will continue to provide potable water for generations."

LGF says it's working with the Haitian government to build more permanent water devices to service slums and other areas on a more routine basis.

A week ago in San Francisco, SmartPlanet met the LifeGivingForce team for a demonstration of their water machine.

Called the LGF Rapid Response 10000UF, the device operates like a miniature water treatment plant. It purifies up to 10,000 liters of water a day, which is enough clean water for about 5,000 people.

Once unloaded from a black box -- two hoses, a few filters, et cetera -- the device can be assembled in 10 minutes. It's powered by solar panel and uses a three-stage filtration process to clean water from ponds, wells, streams and lakes.

It's a stunning visual: murky green-blue water goes in, clear water comes out. To prove it, LGF staffers sipped water straight from the clean end of the hose.

Here's a look:

[video=482880]

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure