Seeing the convergence of global health and development in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s potential as a fountain for global health and development has bubbled up again with advancements in clean water and sanitation.

Whether it be from the academic and civic sectors or whether it be from the corporate and entrepreneurial sectors, innovative solutions are being explored and implemented by Atlanta-based institutions and leaders.

Take the Coca-Cola Co’s 2013 Annual Meeting held on April 23 at the Cobb Galleria.

Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent spent a good portion of the annual meeting introducing a new partnership between the company and inventor Dean Kamen to establish EkoCenters that can provide 1,000 liters of sterile drinking water in impoverished communities.

Kamen has developed a technology that he calls “Slingshot” that can purify any kind of water so that it is safe to drink. The idea is that the machine will be located in an EkoCenter that will work on solar power or biomass, and that they can become communities centers with telecommunications, entertainment, refrigeration, charging stations and business centers.

Or take the conference that was held on April 9 at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health on “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Transforming Lives: An Atlanta World Water Day Event.”

Christine Moe, director of the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University, said there is a complementary effort underway in Atlanta to address the issues of global health, water and sanitation that includes:

Emory, Georgia Tech, CARE, the Carter Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“These institutions have very complementary skills in safe water and sanitation,” Moe said. “It’s an alliance of Atlanta-based institutions.”

Actually a convergence is underway — marrying global health and development — while leveraging all the various players in Atlanta.

Coca-Cola’s Muhtar Kent is fond of describing the Golden Triangle — where business, government and civil society come together. (I would tweak that concept and turn it into a golden square by adding academia — higher education and research to that mix).

Kent is putting that Golden Triangle into practice. At the same annual meeting, shareholders elected Helene Gayle, the president and CEO of CARE USA, as Coca-Cola’s newest director.

She can become a key link in the chain between the Atlanta-based nonprofit and its signature corporate citizen on working to improve the lives of people around the world.

There also is a growing realization that the line between global health and global development is more of a continuum.

At the Emory University water symposium, David Addiss, director of the Children Without Worms program at the Task Force for Global Health, showed a chart with people who had been given drugs to treat water-related neglected tropical diseases. The drugs were effective for about a year.

But when medical treatments were combined with permanent improvements to an area’s water sanitation systems, the health improvements were sustained over a much longer period of time.

Coca-Cola’s Kent also made a similar connection.

“Fifty percent of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people because they don’t have access to clean water,” Kent said while introducing “Slingshot” and the EkoCenters. “It’s an exciting vision. As we speak, we are deploying this technology in Paraguay. In two months, we’ll be in South Africa.”

By 2014, Kent said there will be EkoCenters in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Kamen said he had trouble finding a partner to help him implement the Slingshot technology until he approached Coca-Cola.

“There’s one company that goes to every country in the world — Coca-Cola, the largest, most efficient global distribution system in the world,” Kamen said. “I was lucky; I thought it might be a hard sell. When I met with Muhtar, he was already there.”

Kamen said that the EkoCenter can help counter the urbanization of people around the world.

The EkoCenter can become the heart of a “smart village” with clean water, electricity, internet, education, internet, entertainment, refrigeration for food, medicines and beverages.

China has had a policy of moving people to cities so they can be part of the modern economy, which has led to congestion and pollution.

But if the EkoCenter can bring “point-of-use” technology, water and electricity to villages, people can remain in rural areas and farm, “and help create sustainable communities of the future,” Kamen said.

“At the end of the day, we know our business can only be as strong or as sustainable as the communities that we serve,” Kent said.

On the other side of the coin, Christine Moe said research is needed to develop new ways of handling human wastes, which she calls “excreta,” in growing cities around the world.

Moe said we have to “get away from water flushing excreta especially in cities.” About 1.2 billion of the world’s population live in areas with water scarcity and 1.6 billion live in water-stressed areas.

“We are trying some new technologies,” Moe said. “We have to think about using water in a different way, not using drinking-quality water to remove excreta from our households. As we work in cities in other parts of the world, we do not want to recreate our system. This is really an area for research.”

Atlanta has so many natural partners in the fields of global health and development  — Habitat for Humanity International, United Parcel Service, Home Depot and all the universities and nonprofit organizations.

By converging global health and development, Atlanta is perfectly positioned to make real contributions on an international scale.

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