Innovation That Matters

Photo credits: Constellr, Canva, Ever Dye

How innovation can help solve the water and sanitation crisis

Sustainable Source

Ahead of World Water Day tomorrow, discover innovations that are accelerating change in our use of water and sanitation services

The world is failing when it comes to water. In 2015, the United Nations Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. And within this framework there was an ambitious target: that everyone would have safely managed water and sanitation by 2030. We are not on track to meet this aspiration.

Water is our most precious resource, and the demand for it is rising rapidly. In fact, according to the OECD, global water demand is projected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050. Most of this added demand will not come from a greater need for drinking water, but from increased use of water for manufacturing. Water is therefore not a siloed issue but one that is intimately linked to broader issues with our economic system and patterns of consumption.

So how far are we from meeting the UN’s goals on water and sanitation? And what is the impact of this shortfall on people?

Proposed at the 1992 UN environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, and first observed in 1993, World Water Day (WWD) celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2 billion people living without safe access to it. The factsheet for the 2023 iteration of the event outlines some hard truths about the water and sanitation crisis.

WWD highlights that if we applied the global crisis to a community of 100 people, 25 of them would have to collect water from unsafe sources such as streams or ponds, 44 would live in areas liable to disease caused by wastewater re-entering the environment, and 22 would work in or receive care from healthcare facilities that have no basic water service.

What can we do about this problem? The theme for WWD 2023 is ‘accelerating change,’ and, at Springwise, we see every day how innovation can provide this acceleration. Ahead of WWD and the UN Water Conference, which will be held from the 22nd to the 24th of March, discover a selection of innovations that are improving our access to safe water and sanitation.

Agriculture and industry

Ensuring access to clean water is not just a question of supply – it’s also about using water resources efficiently. Most of our available water is taken up by agriculture and industry, so solutions to improve water efficiency in these sectors are vital.

Startup Constellr measures water stress through thermal infrared micro-satellites. These can detect the surface temperature of farmland, from which information about water availability can be inferred. By mapping where water is needed most, Constellr’s solution can help to use water resources sustainably. ‘Smart irrigation,’ is another solution, and US startup Lumo has developed connected valves that monitor the level of water moving through irrigation systems.

Away from agriculture, power plant cooling is a major industrial drain on water resources, accounting for 43 per cent of water withdrawals in Europe and 50 per cent in the US. Infinite Cooling, a spin-out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is tackling this issue head on with its patented technology to capture water droplets from the plumes of water vapour that leave power plant cooling towers.

Fashion is yet another water-intensive industry, and, according to the UN Environment Programme, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally. In response, startup, Ever Dye, has developed a new dyeing process based on biopigments that uses much less water than traditional processes.

Drinking water

Our most obvious use of water is for drinking. And our access to drinking water is likely to become more of an issue because of the climate crisis. According to the World Health Organization, over 2 billion people already live in water-stressed countries, and UNICEF reports that 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.

One solution to this problem is desalination. About 97 per cent of the Earth’s water is found in the ocean, and desalination is the process of converting salty water into water we can drink. Desalination is already widespread, with 22,757 plants installed worldwide, but most systems are expensive and require large amounts of energy, which typically comes from fossil fuels. As the world tackles the climate crisis, solar-powered desalination has emerged as a key theme, and affordable and portable solar-powered systems could be an important area of development, especially for remote communities in developing countries. For example, startup Boreal Light has developed the Winture Planet Cube, a 100 per cent solar-powered system that can turn highly saline seawater and brackish water into up to 30,000 litres of contamination-free drinking water each hour.

The energy intensity of water treatment is an issue more broadly, but here too there are signs of progress. In Korea, researchers have developed a membrane-based system that can convert wastewater into drinkable water while simultaneously generating electricity.

Sanitation and hygiene

Closely linked to the global water crisis is the issue of sanitation. In many areas of the world, water contaminated by sewage flows back into the environment without being treated. This can cause human diseases such as cholera and typhoid, while also damaging nature through knock-on effects such as algal blooms.

In countries with functioning sanitation systems, leaks from sewage pipes are a key challenge, especially as repairs are costly and time-consuming. To tackle this, researchers from the University of South Australia have developed a method that uses sludge from water treatment to create microcapsules that make concrete sewage pipes ‘self-healing’.

The bigger issue, however, is developing affordable treatment solutions for areas of the world which currently don’t have functioning sanitation systems. Israeli company Huliot, has developed the ClearBlack, a portable sewage treatment system that can clean water for up to 800 people for only around 15 cents per day.

Wetlands and flooding

Another element of the world’s water crisis is the loss of wetland habitats, which increases the risk of flooding. According to one study, 3.4 million square kilometres of inland wetlands have been lost since 1700 – mostly because of the expansion of arable farming.

Finnish startup Fluff Stuff is attempting to reverse this trend by rewetting the land and planting a new type of crop: the common cattail. The company sustainably harvests this water dwelling plant to create a natural alternative to down textile fillings, and in doing so restores vital peatland habitats.

Other startups are working to alleviate the effects of flooding by tackling urban runoff. AquiPor is one such company, having developed a paver material to replace concrete that is porous enough for water to filter down to the soil.

Words: Matthew Hempstead

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