Water Is Thirsty For Innovation. How Are We Meeting The Challenge?

lightbulb_waterAs the planet’s population reaches more than 7 billion, the availability of clean water has become a major concern. The United Nations says more than a billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million more are nearing the same situation.

But as bleak as that sounds, water has also emerged as a hot spot for investment and innovation to save lives and protect future generations.

How Innovation Is Helping

Ingenuity and creative solutions are coming from every corner of the globe.

In Ghana, Scandinavia’s largest research firm, SINTEF, is helping villagers convert rooftop rainwater into drinking water because groundwater is often too salty.

“What we have put together is a water collection system made from simple but functional technologies that collect, store and purify rainwater from the rooftops,” SINTEF’s Sigrid Damman told Science Daily.

The system’s core technologies can also be upgraded as more water collection is diverted away from traditional sources — such as groundwater — during the heavy flooding season. SINTEF’s advanced systems provide an integrated UV disinfection system and a filter, which enables users to drink water straight from the tap. And when electricity is unreliable, solar power can be used for UV purification.

Waterless Toilets and Sanitation

The nexus of water and sanitation has also spurred interest from large donors such as the Gates Foundation. Usually, the toilets, sewers and wastewater treatment systems used worldwide require huge amounts of land, energy and water — and are expensive to maintain and operate. So RTI International, a U.S.-based research firm, received a grant from the Gates Foundation to develop a self-contained toilet system that disinfects liquid waste and turns solid waste into fuel or electricity with a biomass energy conversion unit. That zero-waste strategy could help the system meet its target cost of five cents per person per day.

A Redesigned Washing Machine

There are also plenty of opportunities for change in U.S. water use. Maintaining lawns, installing low-flow showerheads and ditching bottled water are simple starting points for residents.

One British company, Xeros, hopes to add how clothes are washed to that list. The company has developed a washing machine that uses 70 percent less water, up to 50 percent less energy and nearly 50 percent less detergent compared to traditional soap-and-water methods.

Xeros uses beads that, combined with detergent, lift dirt from clothes. The same beads can be used in hundreds of wash cycles — pumped in continuously from below the drum — before being recycled. These new washing machines operate at lower-than-traditional temperatures, which also saves energy, according to Xeros.

Shipping Tankers That Deliver Water

Other ideas seem almost too obvious. Bruarfoss, an Icelandic company, says it can deliver glacial spring water from Iceland in huge tankers that can carry up to 180,000 tons at a time. Not all ports have the infrastructure to receive such large shipments of water, but Bruarfoss says it can support the Western hemisphere, the Middle East and most other locations via commercial shipping hubs such as Rotterdam. Even at full capacity, less than 1 percent of Iceland’s total water supply would be tapped, according to the company.

With so much of the world’s attention and GDP focus on energy exports, why not water?

Markets and Pricing Also Play A Role

As important as innovative technologies are to delivering clean drinking water across the globe, the challenge also requires efficient pricing and markets.

David G. Victor of the University of California, San Diego, tells the New York Times that “most water problems are readily addressed with innovation.” That’s encouraging, but the other part of his comment is also essential: “Getting the water price right to signal scarcity is crucially important.”

Environmental scholars such as Barton H. Thompson at Stanford Law School agree. “Markets are essential to ensuring that water, when it’s scarce, can go to the most valuable uses,” he told The New York Times. Without markets and pricing, “the allocation of water is certainly arbitrary,” he added.

If there’s any resource the world should avoid allocating arbitrarily, it’s water.

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