From World War II to the Lifesaver

Jerry cansJerry cans – you see them everywhere: photos of women and children collecting water in developing countries (particularly in Africa) – bright yellow plastic containers, often strapped to backs or balanced on heads. This is the jerry can, a commonly used container for transporting water from the source back to the home.

The plastic form of the jerry can arrived on the market in the 1970s, but the history of the jerry can, and how it came to have this place in water collection worldwide, starts four decades earlier.

World War II

Jerry canIn the 1930s, German engineers developed the jerry can for motorised military to be able to transport fuel. By 1939, the Germans had thousands stockpiled in preparation for World War II.

In the same year, an American engineer who had been working in Berlin named Paul Pleiss began an overland holiday trip with a German colleague, heading for India. In need of containers to store emergency water, they took three German jerry cans from Tempelhof airport. The colleague was summoned back to Germany during the trip, but before he left, he gave Pleiss the complete specifications for the jerry can’s manufacture. Pleiss had realised how valuable the design of this container was – it was in all ways ergonomically superior to the British and American equivalents – and once he was back America attempted to tell military officials about it, but could not drum up any interest.

Jerry cansThe British fuel containers being used in the war were utterly inadequate for rough terrain, and their tendency to spring leaks had earned them the nickname ‘flimsies’. When they encountered the German jerry can during the invasion of Norway they began using these in preference to their own. This was how the can earned its name, ‘Jerry’ being a British nickname for German soldiers. The British then contacted Pleiss about the jerry can designs and steps were taken to manufacture them.

By V-E Day, some 21 million Allied jerry cans had been scattered across Europe. President Roosevelt said of them that, “Without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace which exceeded the German Blitz of 1940.” After the end of the water the discarded cans were used by citizens to carry water in bombed out areas. It was then that it entered into civilian use.

Jerry can After the war, the jerry can became an item widely available to buy. By the 1970s, plastic jerry cans had been developed, though steel models were still favoured by the military. The plastic models weighed about a third of that of the steel ones, and began to be adopted by those who needed to carry water over long distances – those in the developing world without access to nearby water sources. The jerry cans made a much lighter, stronger alternative to traditional water containers such as clay pots. Despite this however, a full jerry can still weighs around 20kg.


Modern day jerry cans

Jerry canFor many people in developing nations, the jerry can is a part of everyday life – a companion on the long walk to water and a keeper of this precious resource. A standard can will hold five gallons of water and many families use only one jerry can of water a day – that’s a quarter of the World Health Organisation’s recommended amount per person.

The jerry can has been around for a very long time, but its development hasn’t ended yet.  Solvatten has developed one which, if left in the sun, will heat the water inside to 50-60⁰C, killing any pathogens present. An indicator changes from red to green when the water is safe to drink. The whole process takes three to four hours in sunny conditions, and five to six on a cloudy day.

Lifesaver jerry canAnother innovation, the LifeSaver jerry can, incorporates a built-in filtration system which can purify five gallons of water at a time. Users can fill the cans between around 500 and 1,000 times before the system needs replacing, and the filter itself tells the user when it’s nearing the end of its usable life.


To help Just a Drop’s work in ensuring that people don’t have to walk huge distances carrying heavy containers full of water – and that the water they have is clean and safe – please visit our How To Donate page.

Written by: Margaret Welsh. August 2013