Overcoming the imminent water crisis – global innovations and technology breakthroughs

Last month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a stark report that says global governments and agencies remain unprepared for the looming worldwide water crisis. Unless water security efforts markedly improve, by 2050 over 5 billion people will not have enough access to water for at least one month of the year. This is almost exactly half of the entire world’s predicted population for 2050.

Troubling as this image of the near future is, what does the global water crisis look like right now? Equally importantly, how are new technologies stepping up to balance the scales and put new freshwater supplies into the mix?

Assessing the immediate and long-term impact of the water crisis

The WMO report, alongside other prominent updates and warnings released this year, underline how impactive the world’s water imbalance issues really are. Not only has the climate-related loss of critical freshwater supplies leading directly to drought, disease and other water scarcity problems, it has demonstrated substantial knock-on effects with devastating consequences.

One of the most prominent of these is the increase of flooding worldwide. Flooding-related disasters have spiked by 134% in the past two decades, with Asia experiencing the majority of the deaths and economic losses. In July this year, massive floods in Germany killed over 130 people and caused estimated damages of €125 million. At the other end of the spectrum, global incidents of drought have risen by 29% since 2000, with most of the resultant deaths occurring in Africa.

Then of course, there is another kind of human-made disaster to consider – wars being fought (or threatened) over water. As nations step up dam building and water extraction activities to lock in vital supplies for the future, this is ratcheting up tension with their neighbours who rely on the same cross-border water sources. Water-related violence and conflict rhetoric over water is increasing all the time, with at least 61 violent water conflicts occurring globally between 1990-2007, up from 23 in 1960-1989.

The problem, evidently, is not just the lack of freshwater. The climate changes occurring now have already begun a chain reaction of many different water-related crises that are all increasing in severity.

Damming the breach – Technology steps in

While diplomacy is the chief tool in diffusing conflict and providing relief for regions struck with water crises, technology continues to try and tackle the problem at its source. Creating more freshwater supplies, and conserving more of what we already have, is the life-preserving work of innovators around the world.

Almost every month, we have new and remarkable water innovations to share. This month is no different. The following are just a handful of the latest technological advances and breakthroughs in this most critical of global struggles.

Atmospheric water generation (AWG) hydropanels: The air holds six times as much water as the world’s rivers. Arizona-based company Source is building up a growing list of hydropanel deployments that use AWG to create drinking water from thin air. The solution uses fans to draw in air. Once inside the device, the water vapour is converted into liquid, filtered and then mineralised. The panels are entirely powered by sunlight, and are flexible enough to be deployed in most terrain types, even in areas of low humidity that are entirely off-grid. Source has recently deployed hydropanels in Bahía Hondita, a remote Colombian community, sustainably supplying 500 people with clean drinking water. The company’s sights are now set on drought-stricken California.

Tsunami Products ups its water generation rates: Another AWG breakthrough, Washington-based Tsunami Products has unveiled its new design for a forced condenser-type AWG system that is capable of producing between 900 and 8,600 litres of water a day. At a time when scalability is almost as important as sustainability, the ability to ramp up production rates of clean water is essential.

‘Desolination’, Horizon 2020 Project couples solar power and desalination: Progress is accelerating at the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the Horizon 2020 project will create a plant that generates low-cost renewable energy (under $115 per megawatt-hour) alongside low-cost freshwater ($1.04 per cubic metre). Overall, this approach is predicted to generate 30% fewer CO2 emissions than traditional desalination methods.

AI advances and investment: Though this is a more general trend than a specific innovation, it’s a vital one. A new report from Bluefield predicts that the global water industry will increase its AI investment amount to $6.3 billion annually by 2030, with information management remaining the fastest-growing technology segment in the industry. The key role of AI will be to grant water utility firms full visibility over their infrastructure networks, allowing them to predict and stop leaks and critical failures – hence water waste – before they happen.

Stemming the tide – Technology is critical to the ongoing water crisis struggle

Staving off the worst effects of water scarcity is among the highest priorities of both supranational organisations like the UN, and individual governments, water industry companies, academics, innovators and solutions providers. As the crucial COP26 talks are due to commence at the end of October, the severity of the water crisis could not be more apparent, or more politically prominent.