This is an article from the July-August 2011 issue: Overcoming Poverty

Turning Wine into Clean Water?

An invitation to Explore the Possibilities

Turning Wine into Clean Water?
Church Planting Movements are changing the spiritual landscape among many poor populations. The intention for such movements to be self-funding through bivocational leadership suggests a natural synergy with “Business For Transformation” (B4T).
Could Church Planting Movements be peculiarly suited for synergy with business models for delivering clean water to the poor?

This question became personal for me during four weeks in January with leaders of “some of the biggest harvests in the world today.”1 Despite faith and prayer, I had “traveler’s tummy” by the third day. My experienced companion combined prayer with local and U.S. remedies to restore me swiftly, then said:

Some young people I brought to India felt their faith was adequate to drink the local water, so I invited a top-notch missionary doctor to talk to them. When she told them she boils every drop of water she drinks, they asked if faith wasn’t enough. She replied, “The first eight missionaries to come here all died of water-borne diseases within six months. I think they had as much faith as I do.”

Still, I wondered, “Aren’t the locals resistant to local bacteria?” No. I soon found one of my hosts suffering as I had. (Since then I have learned that, in some parts of the world, half of all hospital beds are filled with victims of water-borne disease.)2

Yet water contamination is perhaps the most addressable factor in material poverty. And the economic benefits to both the poor and their communities are undeniable:

Sustainable access to improved sanitation, good hygiene habits and decent water unlock the door that bars so many millions of people from climbing out of poverty. It is the poor who suffer most now, so improving their health provides the biggest returns: essentially, the healthier they are, the better they will be able to work. They will grow more, and their nutrition will improve.3

In recent years these compelling benefits have stirred aggressive charitable efforts to provide clean water—both secular and faith-based. Yet the vast majority of those who still lack clean water are also the poorest people on the planet (see sidebar).

Two recent books4 may suggest how Church Planting Movements can employ a business model to …

  • create employment opportunities that
  • serve the poor in particular, and
  • improve local access to clean water.

Water, Water Everywhere

The link between poverty and water can be measured in competition, cost/convenience, purification, and sanitation with education.5

Competition arises where limited water is available for drinking, irrigation and industry. Those in power control water resources, and the poor lose when the supply is reduced.

Cost/convenience reflects the daily effort required to access sufficient water. People can only live near water, but for the poor, the time-cost of obtaining “cleaner” water often interferes with education or profitable employment. The poor frequently…

  • fetch water from a distance,
  • use sources of questionable quality,
  • risk contamination of stored water,
  • rely on unethical providers, and
  • pay more than those with plumbing.6

(Many excellent charity-based well-drilling ministries are whittling away at this access problem.)7

Purification is an increasing global challenge—from biological, natural, agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical contaminants.8 The poor must use the most questionable water, and can become a breeding ground for diseases that threaten everyone in their communities. So helping the poor access clean water benefits their whole community. Historically, purification has only been viable at a community level, through urban treatment filtering of well water. (Wells improve quality and access, but must be monitored, maintained, and protected.)

Sanitation with education is another vital factor. The poor most often lack basic understanding regarding contamination, and opportunity to apply that understanding. This is one reason literacy is such a powerful weapon against poverty.9

Getting Personal

New, inexpensive filter purification technology makes possible a revolution in clean water access akin to what the cell phone is doing for services and information.10 Individual house churches or families can now use and care for their own personal filter and share it with others, enabling use of local unimproved sources and serving as a safety net for community treatment.11

When disasters compromise community water treatment,12 portable filters can continue serving in an evacuation.

Turning Wine into Clean Water?

Steve Downey13 and Nick Noll,14 my collaborators for this article, have identified two filters developed since 2008 (Sawyer® and Berkey®) which exceed EPA standards for water purifiers and appear most useful for missionaries and those they serve.15 Neither is yet capable of turning wine back into water, but both are …

  • effective for nearly all pathogens,
  • low-cost and low-maintenance,
  • long-lasting and fully portable,
  • and “fail-safe” (plug up rather than allowing pathogens through).

Church Planting Movements

Large-scale efforts to address poverty can be hindered by corruption at high levels and/or spiritual forces which rob the poor of their initiative and creativity. The collective discipling, personal transformation and trust relationships which develop in Church Planting Movements (CPMs) produce the kind of “spiritual capital”16 necessary to sustain businesses that break the poverty cycle.

CPMs are flourishing among the poor, and the relational discipling of CPMs creates an ideal environment for the propagation of literacy and hygiene education. Even before the advent of CPMs, Frank Laubach is credited with bringing literacy to a hundred million people through his emphasis on How to Teach One and Win One for Christ; Christ’s Plan for Winning the World (Zondervan, 1964). How much more will God do in our day as we encourage and assist CPMs to be active in lifting their members and their communities out of poverty?

The Business of Business

A few years ago Landa Cope’s materials first helped me see the key role business has in providing employment and reducing the cost of goods and services. Charity can help in a crisis, but generally …

  • reduces personal initiative,
  • undermines local businesses,
  • hinders long-term growth, and
  • are unsustainable.

In contrast, business models can …

  • cultivate personal initiative,
  • generate income for house church leaders and their coaches, and
  • sustainably reduce the local cost of goods.

The time is ripe for business initiatives to reduce the cost of clean water through the sale of new filtering technology. Through microfinance loans individuals could purchase filters on credit to be repaid from …

  • reduced medical expenses,
  • productivity gains, and/or
  • selling clean water to others at a reduction of their current cost.

Of the two filters mentioned above, the Sawyer® is best suited for poverty contexts with high levels of water-borne disease. It…

  • improves health and productivity,
  • is low-cost and lasts for years, and
  • filters rapidly enough for on-demand use.

The other filter mentioned above, the Berkey®, removes a much wider range of EPA recognized dissolved contaminants17 and still costs less than 2¢/gallon for replacement filters. Both companies are owned by Evangelicals, but Sawyer® is more aggressively pursuing sustainable business models for providing the world’s poor with clean water.

Retired missionary Lou Haveman is coordinating Sawyer®’s global distribution. To learn more visit

Note: As of this writing, none of the authors of this article have a financial interest in Sawyer® filters. However Nick’s business sells 40+ other brands of filters, including Berkey® filters, and will soon be carrying Sawyer® filters as well.

Toward experimenting with business models that reward everyone’s involvement, Robby and Nick have worked out a deal for interested individual missionaries and their friends to share in a group discount on Berkey® filter systems and portable water bottles, plus a commission for referring others. See the paid ad for Berkey® filters on page 13 of the PDF version of this issue.


  1. As quoted in my May MF article: Church Planting Movements from One Indian Perspective



  4. Next Generation Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid: New Approaches for Building Mutual Value by Ted London and Stuart Hart (FT Press, 2010), and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits by C. K. Prahalad (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009).


  6. The Poor Pay More (pp 51–53)

  7. and

  8. The difference between biological and other contaminants is comparable to the difference between a pipe bomb and a nuclear bomb. Biological contaminants multiply and spread, while other contaminants (such as the Chlorine often used to control pathogens) only affect the one who ingests them.

  9. From 2002–2005, Mission India provided literacy training for 74,000 people with an initial average daily income of 77¢—well below the U.N. poverty standard of $1/day. Through this one-year, two hour/night training, average income rose by an average of 57%, as reported in Is Hearing Enough? Literacy and the Great Commandment (WCL, 2010), pp 76-77.

  10. “Cell phones increasingly make banking and other key services available to the very poor, along with information to guard them from price-gouging.”—Gary Edmonds, former secretary-general of the World Evangelical Alliance, and president of Breakthrough Partners.

  11. Even in the U.S., centralized treatment can fail. In 1993 403,000 people became ill and 69 died when a Milwaukee treatment plant became infected, costing $32 million for medical care and $65 million in lost productivity.

  12. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita impacted 800 treatment plants, affecting five million people, and placed uncounted wells under “boil” restriction.

  13. A Lifewater-trained volunteer with experience in Kenya (with River International and Harvest Keepers) and Latin America (River International). Steve is the author of

  14. A second-generation MK with a passion to address water needs through

  15. Similar but less suitable filters discovered in our research include reverse osmosis, Katadyn®, and Lifesaver®. Nick and my wife independently researched filtrations options and, like many missionaries, settled on Berkey® filters for our home use.

  16. See Spiritual Capital by Ken Eldred in this issue.



i have been working in the slums fore almost 25 years now. there are statistics showing that more people die from dirty water than from wars and other violent causes. national geographic’s last article on the issue advocated for filtered water. but WHO articles point more to running water as more effective than all of the above. the reason is because collected water accumulates e-coli and other waterborne diseases. despite available good drinking water, the system of washing with collected water and using a dipper still outweighs the gains of good drinking water. running or tap water automatically removes half of morbidity in the slum community.


Dear Raineer,

Thank you for sharing from your experience. Running water is a great goal, But how do you propose to develop the necessary infrastructure, and what do you propose for those who are waiting?

Running water does indeed have many benefits, but these benefits complement “point of use” water purification rather than making it irrelevant.

Note that tap water does not guarantee removal of water-borne bacteria; any water source or storage can become contaminated. Here in the U.S., one of the two treatment plants in Milwaukee got infected some years ago, leading to the death of 69 people, the illness of 403,000, and CDC estimated medical expenses of $32,000,000 plus lost productivity of more than $65,000,000 <>.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has evaluated 7,500 microbes and chemicals, but regulates fewer than 100. Thus even in the U.S. it is wise to use “point of use” purification as a backup to municipal water treatment.

Unfortunately most popular filtration in the U.S. is overpriced and only corrects for taste rather than a broad spectrum of toxins (microbes, the toxins introduced in disinfecting water, and the wider ocean of toxins). All the brands reviewed by Aquasana (including their own) are more expensive per gallon and do less than the Black Berkey purifiers which they ignore.

This is why our family uses a portable Berkey purifier at home, and self-purifying water bottles when we go out (in which one $16 filter purifies 250+ gallons, replacing 2,000 disposable bottles). This is also why I have arranged for a rebate for MF readers interested in counter-top water purifiers or self-purifying water bottles. (Those interested in the rebate can explore and then email me for the rebate details.

Running water for slums is certainly a goal to be pursued, but until such running water is available, and even afterward, it appears to me that “point of use” purification makes personal, ministry and business sense, here in the U.S. and even more where water is not as thoroughly treated.


P.S. More damaging than relying on tap water without personal purification is the popular belief in the U.S. that bottled water is better than tap water. Not only is bottled water less regulated and monitored than tap water, with between 25 and 45 percent of the bottled water sold in the United States originating as tap water (see also The Facts about Bottled Water), but 60 million or more water bottles are discarded EACH DAY in the U.S., creating a huge environmental burden.

And then there is the issue of disaster preparedness. Will you have clean water readily available if you are forced to evacuate? As Peter Gleick writes on Circle of Blue: “Disasters happen. Earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, tsunamis, and more. And as we see at each disaster, ... the first and most urgent need after rescue operations are finished is usually clean, adequate water.”

This again is why the portable Berkey and Sawyer filters are such a helpful solution

I have grown up in the family business. We are municipal water treatment specialists. I carry a class C license in water treatment and a class 2 water distribution license and work in the state of Colorado. Aside from my formative years I carry thirteen years of working experience. I have turned ashen sloppy mud from the burned forest floor into drinkable water with the technology we have.

The current approach to bringing water to the nations has been half hearted at best. I do believe that centralized water can help many and reduce death and disease considerably. When the people of New York needed good water they didn’t yell for pails of water and more wells. They hated it! The neighborhood well and pail system had led to self renewing disease in that city. Recent history clearly shows that treated central water works. The situation in Milwaukee was learned from and is a big part of water operator 101 in the US. This sad situation led to the standards that your (quite good) Berkey filters follow today. “Water for Gotham” is a great book that can illustrate some of the issues we have overcome in our society. Many of the people we go to are in very similar circumstances to those in Europe and the US in the early 1800’s.

Wells can be constructed in a fashion using clays and gravel that will remove many of the parasites and some bacteria before the water enters the pit. After this point your water is run through the final filter and to a faucet in the center of camp. You can make this run from a hand pump and the “storage” could be the well itself. You must cover and protect the well of course. This tiny system can be maintained by my ten year old. 

Don’t forget Hosea 4:6. On the other side we need to educate these people on how to spot contaminated water and good water and how to properly rid of their waste.  It worked in the United States and is why you often do not have to fear our water, though I still urge caution. We can help these people.

We commonly must send temporary solutions and in some regions we could do a lot better. We need a missionary force of well drillers and treatment and distribution specialists like me. Not engineers! People that do this every day should be doing it and there are thousands!. Our history of water is a history of blessing and we should share our knowlege and ability with others. Sadly I have never heard of a water centralization and treatment mission.

Dear David,
Belated thanks for your excellent input! Please forgive my late response.
I agree wholeheartedly with your appeal for a water centralization and treatment mission.
I would welcome suggestions for how to move forward with something along those lines.
Point of use filtration can help, but cannot compare with what can be done on a centralized basis.

Dear David,

One further comment on what you wrote:
Wells can be constructed in a fashion using clays and gravel that will remove many of the parasites and some bacteria before the water enters the pit. After this point your water is run through the final filter and to a faucet in the center of camp. You can make this run from a hand pump and the “storage” could be the well itself. You must cover and protect the well of course. This tiny system can be maintained by my ten year old.

The problem I hear from those setting up wells on the field is that our charity model for funding wells leaves the local community lacking a feeling of ownership and thus neglecting the well, so that the average life of a well is about 7 years even though, as you suggest, a 10 year old could maintain it.


Jane, Thanks for all the great tips!

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