January 1, 2007 6:51 AM
Among the many benefits of living in Santa Barbara County, the ability to turn on a faucet and fill a glass with clean water might not be at the top of most residents' minds, but Larry Siegel is keenly aware of the privilege.

The Carpinteria man has traveled to some of the most impoverished parts of the world, where residents risk their lives when they drink the only water available to them. This weekend he's heading to Malawi in southeastern Africa to take a look at the problem there.

"It's puzzling for people who live in our community to think that there are individuals that don't have a convenient source of potable -- safe -- drinking water," Mr. Siegel said. According to the World Health Organization, about a billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, and every year, about 1.6 billion people -- most of them young children -- die as a consequence.

Mr. Siegel, who served as a legislative staff director in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, co-founded Carpinteria-based Safe Water International in 1993, with acquaintances who worked with him on the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"The thought was that after we'd worked together on that, perhaps we should be thinking more globally."

Safe Water International has already set up solar water purification systems in a school and two homes in rural Bolivia and is evaluating how effective they are, and how willing residents are to take advantage of them. The group has also installed purification systems in villages in the Patzcuaro region of central Mexico and will soon begin putting systems in schools in the area.

Safe Water International, which Mr. Siegel describes as fitting "in the labor of love category of nonprofits," with two fulltime staff, a board of six people, and a handful of consultants, works to find ways to provide safe drinking water in poor, rural parts of the world. That means evaluating water purification systems to "see what could be manufactured in volume, with predictable results, and will actually work in these difficult environments," Mr. Siegel said. Two-stage systems, in which water passes through a sand filter and then is disinfected using UV radiation, seem like a good option, he added, and Safe Water International hopes to be able to deploy them for less than $400 a unit.

Now Mr. Siegel hopes the group efforts can save some of Malawi's many AIDS patients from dying from water-borne illnesses.

"Drinking water is one of the biggest sources of mortality for people with AIDS," Mr. Siegel said. While a healthy person might suffer for several days after drinking contaminated water, someone whose immune system has been ravaged by AIDS may not be able to fight the illness.

While he's in Malawi, Mr. Siegel will look for sites where water purification systems could be installed to serve AIDS patients being cared for in homes.

Funding for the Malawi project has come from the Carpinteria Morning Rotary Club -- where Mr. Siegel is an active member -- and the Rotary Clubs of Westlake Village and San Marcos. Mr. Siegel estimated that the equipment will cost about $15,000 and the project could be completed in 18 months.

"It's such a small gleam of light in this enormous, tragic human problem," he said.