Moringa, nature’s water purifier
It’s been called Nébéday in Senegal or “Never die”, Arzan Tiiga in Burkina Faso or “Tree of Paradise”, drumstick tree in India, but it’s generally referred to as moringa, short for moringa olifeira. It grows wild in tropical climates all over the world, and awareness of it is growing even in the West: indeed, it’s set to start appearing in teas and energy shots throughout North America and Europe, according to a leading firm in food consultancy. But the success of these tiny leaves packed with vitamins, calcium and potassium belies the hidden power of the moringa fruit’s oily seeds. In regions hit hard by a lack of clean water, harnessing the chemical properties of the moringa seed in innovative ways could help fight water rarification.
“People want to know the story behind their food”, Melissa Abbot told the Wall Street Journal, referring to moringa’s nutritional and culinary success. But has the forest been hiding the trees? We might be missing the real story here: a new local answer to the water crisis.
“The Miracle Tree”
“It’s not difficult to understand the quality of the water in the river”. 23-year-old Akberet Naizgi from Ethiopia paints an unflattering picture of her rural village’s access to water to the teams at Water.org. “You only have to glance at the color of it – it’s green.” This is the rule, not the exception for many communities throughout Africa, where 332 million people lack any safe access to water. And even in the cases where a solution is found, unsafe water sources remain a necessity in the face of failure rates of over 20 percent for water projects in Africa, and upwards of 50 percent when it comes to wells. Rudimentary filtration is used, but doesn’t help deal with bacteria. The results can be dire, especially for children, who are particularily at risk.
Moringa already serves a vital role in treating waterborne diseases in Africa and Asia, where its leaves are known to alleviate the effects of fever and diarrhoea. Increasingly though, the moringa seed is being looked to as the developing world’s answer to reed beds. Whilst the latter is gaining fame as a natural way of putting free, local stream water into the hands of farmers in Europe and North America, the former may be just as potent when it comes to clearing drinking water of impurities without altering its drinkability (the palatability of the resulting water is up for debate, with many nicknaming the moringa tree “Horseradish Tree” for the sour, spicy taste the leaves and fruit possess). All in all, that could be great news for many regions in Africa and India.
The moringa tree grows naturally in subtropical climates, where it has helped alleviate malnutrition for millennia. The success that it’s gained growing wild may be replicated in other regions of the world with similarily hot climates. In her book “The Miracle Tree”, Dr. Monica Marcu posits it as “one of the most useful trees on earth”, growing resiliently “even in arid or drought-affected areas”. This makes the moringa seed a sustainable answer to encroaching desertification and the contraction of available farm land due to the spread of cash crops in the economic South.
A cheap and painless solution
Indigenous companies such as Raintree Farms Ltd have built strong businesses out of moringa production: they harvest the leaves and roots and crush them into powder for nutritional and medicinal use; the seeds are then pressed for oil. The remaining seed cake seems like a simple by-product, but it acts as a powerful coagulant on impure water. The alkaline reaction induced by as little as 50mg/L of seed cake frees water from bacteria and most sediment, both of which clump to the powdered seed cake and sink to the bottom of the water. The final step may be as simple as using a sieve to recover the filtrate, though it varies depending on the region (the resulting water is boiled in Sudan; in India, basic filtration does the trick).
It should come as no surprise that companies like Raintree Farms are giving away seeds free of charge to neighbouring farmers in Uganda willing to sow them. If similar pushes take place in areas with few sources of drinking water, non-industrialised countries may find themselves with a cheap and painless solution to a thorny problem.
Grégoire SMELT is currently studying to be a lawyer at the University of Paris-Sud Jean Monnet and the University of Strasbourg, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Law and Sustainable Management of Energies and admission to the Versailles Bar
Grégoire SMELT est étudiant-juriste d’origine franco-britannique, aspirant à l’avocature et fait partie du Master 2 GEDD de l’Université de Strasbourg et de l’IEJ Paris-Sud Jean Monnet