How can innovation help solve the freshwater crisis?

Less than 1% of freshwater on the planet is accessible, and is becoming more scarce.

Less than 1% of freshwater on the planet is accessible, and is becoming more scarce. Image: Unsplash

Emanuela Orsini
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Fresh Water

  • Out of all the water on the planet, less than 3% is freshwater, and only 1% of this freshwater is easily accessible.
  • Due to climate change, population growth and mismanagement, freshwater is becoming more scarce.
  • UpLink, The World Economic Forum's open innovation platform, alongside HCL Group, have launched the Global Freshwater Challenge looking for innovations that help restore freshwater ecosystems.
  • Up to 10 winning start-ups will receive CHF 1.75 million in co-funding, as well get access to the World Economic Forum's network, potential investment opportunities, and mentorship and advice on how to scale their businesses.

Transcript: How can innovation help solve the freshwater crisis?

This transcript has been generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the audio.

Robin Pomeroy, Radio Davos: Welcome to Radio Davos, the podcast from the World Economic Forum that looks at the biggest challenges and how we might solve them. This week: water. Freshwater is a precious resource on climate change. Population growth and mismanagement are making it even more so.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson, HCL Technologies: Over the past couple of decades, we are actually losing more fresh water. Close to 80% of wastewater goes into waterways without adequate treatment, and then it eventually reaches the ocean.

Robin Pomeroy: The World Economic Forum's UpLink platform wants to hear from you if you have new ideas on how to protect freshwater. On this episode, we'll be hearing from Roshni Nadar Malhotra, chairperson of India based tech firm HCL, on why she's backing this project.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: Inaccess to fresh water, I see it on a daily basis in a city like Delhi with 25 billion people.

Robin Pomeroy: As the world meets at 27 to discuss climate change, we also have to consider freshwater, vital for our survival and under threat from the consequences of global warming.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: There's been a big ESG push, which has made carbon quite central to everyone's agenda. But we don't see water central to an agenda.

Robin Pomeroy: Subscribe to Radio Davos wherever you get your podcasts, please leave us a rating and a review and join us on the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook. I'm Robin Pomeroy at the World Economic Forum, and with this look at freshwater and a call for innovative solutions...

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: Freshwater is a very pivotal resource for life on Earth. And us humans.

Have you read?

Robin Pomeroy: This is Radio Davos.

Water. The water we drink, the water we cook with, and the water we clean ourselves with is a precious resource. And in much of the world, it's becoming ever more precious and scarce, not least because of the impacts of climate change, which is focusing minds at the COP 27 conference in Egypt right now.

Water scarcity is one of the things that humans will have to address more and more because of climate change. And on this episode of Radio Davos, we're calling on you, the listeners, for solutions. The World Economic Forum's UpLink platform invites people with innovative solutions to big problems to send them in for a chance to be selected as UpLink innovators, where they can make contacts, seek funding and other ways to get their ideas off the ground. And UpLink is currently focusing on water freshwater. To talk about that. I'm joined by Emanuela Orsini from the UpLink team at the World Economic Forum. Emanuela, how are you?

Emanuela Orsini, UpLink: I'm fine, Robin. Thanks so much for having me.

Robin Pomeroy: Well, thanks for joining us to talk about water. Remind us first, though, what UpLink is.

Emanuela Orsini: UpLink is a platform founded by the World Economic Forum, Deloitte and Salesforce, which sources and skills entrepreneurs solving some of the world's biggest challenges, as well as investment funds focusing on these types of 'purpose-driven startups', as we call them. One of the most recent innovation challenges that we're running on our platform right now is the Global Fresh Water Challenge, and it's run in partnership with HCL, which is a multinational I.T. and consulting company. So for this challenge specifically, we're looking for aquapreneurs who have ideas for restoring freshwater ecosystems.

Robin Pomeroy: What is an aquapreneur?

Emanuela Orsini: Basically it's an entrepreneur working in the water space. So we've called them aquapreneurs and yes we're looking for aquapreneurs specifically for this freshwater challenge.

Robin Pomeroy: So why are you focusing on freshwater?

Emanuela Orsini: So to put this into perspective. Now, out of all the water on this planet, less than 3% is freshwater. And if you break down this 3%, only 1% is really easily available for human use, and the other 2% are locked in glaciers and they're not accessible.

So with climate change, expanding populations, meaning increased water usage, rivers and lakes are drying up all around the world. Our water sources are becoming more scarce. And so the issue is if we continue draining freshwater resources faster than they can replenish, and while the earth keeps warming up, we'll soon run out of safe drinking water.

Robin Pomeroy: So you're looking for solutions to that problem. What kind of innovations are you looking for?

Emanuela Orsini: Yes. So this is the global freshwater challenge. It's a part of the five year Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative. So this is the first one of five that will be running on UpLink over the next few years. So this one's focusing on solutions that are conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems, also that restore water quality, that build climate change resilience, that can help improve decision-making around this resource, among other things.

Over the past couple of decades, we are actually losing more fresh water. Close to 80% of wastewater goes into waterways without adequate treatment, and then it eventually reaches the ocean.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson, HCL Technologies

Robin Pomeroy: So if people enter this challenge and send in their solution, if they're selected, what do they get from it?

Emanuela Orsini: HCL has committed a total funding of 1.75 million CHF to up to ten winning startups that will be selected for this challenge. So it'll help them grow and scale their impact. But they'll also get access to the World Economic Forum's events, communities, networks for potential investment, as well as public exposure through the Forum's digital channels, and then will also get support and advice on how to grow their businesses to scale.

Robin Pomeroy: So we're going to hear a couple of other voices in this episode. At the end of the episode, you're going to introduce us to an innovator, not one from this challenge, because this challenge is only starting now, but it's a person who's already been involved with water and with UpLink, and we'll hear that towards the end of this episode. But first, we're going to hear from the chairperson of HCL Technologies, who sponsoring this. Tell me something about her.

Emanuela Orsini: Yes. So I spoke with Roshni Nadar Malhotra. So it was interesting to hear her perspective, from a more of a business point of view, why they're deciding to invest in freshwater and looking for innovation and to spread awareness about the issue.


Robin Pomeroy: Well, let's listen to that interview. You started by asking Roshni Nadar Malhotra why water was so important to her personally.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: I think that water is very important to me because firstly I think it's mostly taken for granted and you know, coming from India and just seeing the environment around us and, you know, our population and the inaccess to fresh water is something that impacts me personally. I see it on a daily basis in a city like Delhi with 25 billion people. So I think it's mostly taken for granted and misunderstood.

Emanuela Orsini: Do you have any specific personal stories that may have impacted focus on this topic?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: In another foundation that I have founded, which is called the Habitats Trust, and we focus on indigenous wildlife species and lesser known habitats, one has definitely seen a severe shortage in water and what it's done to biodiversity and natural environments, especially for India. You know, having been involved in this for a couple of years, just even to see the same spot in a jungle and how it's changed over the past decade and how the wildlife has changed or and it's all related to lack of water is something that I have seen firsthand and it is something that I think cannot be ignored.

Emanuela Orsini: Can you talk a bit more about that project? I'm curious to know a bit more about it and how how did it impact you? What was it specifically that made you realize, wow, we really need to to focus more on this and work more on this topic area.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: For example, in the northeast of India, we do a project with the Hoolock Gibbon. And the Hoolock Gibbons have lost a severe amount of their habitat to deforestation. They actually live in forest clusters. But there is no connecting forest in the middle.

And if you read in the past 5 to 6 years, while the northeast of India in comparison to the rest of India it gets a large share of fresh water because of the rainfall, because of the deforestation, they are not able to contain that freshwater. And so much of it actually floods the entire region and goes into the sea.

So there is a clear example of a region in our in my own country which gets more than than the [average] annual percentage of rainfall than any other spot in the country. So they are getting fresh water. But because of the amount of deforestation that has taken place, it is unable to actually harness and use that resource. And the kind of impact that it had on even the Hoolock Gibbons population and how they've had to adapt and move to different parts so that they can just have access to not only their homeland, which is the trees, but also freshwater, which they would have had in abundance if there hadn't been this sort of rain off.

There's been a big ESG push, which has made carbon quite central to everyone's agenda. But we don't see water central to an agenda.

Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson, HCL Technologies

Emanuela Orsini: I want to focus more on the topic of freshwater. Why is it so at risk right now?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: For most of us, agriculture is a very large source of GDP in our countries. And to access water for agriculture, most countries are using wetlands, they're using aquifers, they're using freshwater resources. They're developing next to rivers which come from glaciers. They're developing next to lakes, which are also another source of freshwater. So we are actually, as a race, consuming a lot more freshwater than we're actually rejuvenating and pumping back into the system.

So over the past couple of decades, we are actually losing more fresh water. Close to 80% of wastewater goes into waterways without adequate treatment, and then it eventually reaches the ocean. So we're using the resource, but we're not replenishing the resource. And whatever wastewater which could have been taken in for treatment, 80% of it is also just going through the underground and just going into the sea. And of course, as you know, there's enough studies to show what's even happening to the oceans in terms of pollutants.

Emanuela Orsini: And so now I want to talk a bit more about the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative that HCL has launched. So my question to you is why HCL as a tech company, why have you decided to invest in water and what is the link there between tech and water?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: So HCL as a group has been working in both tech based and nature based solutions to help rejuvenate, conserve and recycle freshwater ecosystems across India with a lot of strong community partnerships and NGOs. We were doing this as part of the HCL Foundation, and we do believe that there is an innovation ecosystem that can enable water entrepreneurs with resources and mentoring to invest in creating new solutions and also improving and scaling existing ones.

I think that even today, if we look at CSR grants, if we look at foundations, a lot of the money still tends to go towards education, healthcare and some of the other larger causes, which of course require heavy investments as well. But water being and especially freshwater being such an important resource is probably not getting that kind of patient capital.

And because time is short. I think the one thing that we can agree is that when young entrepreneurs put their minds to solving a solution, they're able to do so effectively if they have capital. And so the Aquapreneur Innovations Initiative is set up as a way to provide patient capital to water entrepreneurs, aquapreneurs, to come up with innovative solutions for freshwater conservation, but also help scale existing solutions, which may not be happening across geographies, may be very localized, but not so much globalized.

Emanuela Orsini: Are there any innovations that have surprised you so far, or what are the kind of things that you you're hoping that might come out of the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative on UpLink?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: So just to give you an example, in India, we worked with an organization and reconstructed 12 rooftop rainwater harvesting structures in government schools to ensure that students would have access to water. And this was a great positive effect because not only were we harnessing rainwater, but we were also reducing the dependency on groundwater, and the children were regularly trained on sustainable use of water, we provided appropriate water filters for safe drinking of this harvested rainwater. And since 2017, over 140,000 people have benefited through this water conservation intervention.

So I think that, again, it's a very simple solution, but to be able to find an ability to scale is what makes this very critical. And I'm sure there are aquapreneurs out there who will have as interesting innovations, if not new ones, which could scale.

Emanuela Orsini: What are those abilities to scale that you're talking about?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: Because HCL works extensively in freshwater conservation in India, we're hoping that through the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative, if we're able to source solutions and entrepreneurs, let's say, in different parts of the world, could we offer some of the interventions that we do in India, some of the water bodies that we work in India, as labs where they can innovate and test their solution or their product?

Because I think that India does come with a unique proposition of 1.4 billion people sitting on a mass of land, and you don't have that kind of concentration anywhere else. So I'm also trying through HCL to leverage that. If you can do it in India, it can probably work in other parts of the world.

So addressing scale is extremely important in a finite period of time. And I think that if we can work with aquapreneurs all over the world and have them maybe do pilots and do projects and maybe use India as their, you know, 'aqua lab', we could help scale to other parts of the world as well.


Emanuela Orsini: What is your message to other business leaders regarding water and what help would you like to see them give to entrepreneurs and startups?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: I'd love for as many business and business leaders to participate in the Aquapreneur Initiative in partnership with UpLink. I think that would be really great.

I also think that to make water, especially freshwater, a part of your agenda, I think there's been a big ESG push which has made carbon quite central to everyone's agenda, but we don't see water central to an agenda. And while I think carbon is extremely important, what we going to run out of before carbon is probably going to be water.

So I think you have to look at it from from a standpoint of being paranoid that it's going to run out and and the time is now. So if they could just make water as a central part of their agenda as carbon and, you know, participate in the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative with UpLink. We've just started the journey, but there's so much to be done and you know, 15 million is not going to get us to pivot the needle, change the needle. I think it's going to take a lot more of a movement, an actual movement.

Emanuela Orsini: What is the impact you hope to see five years from now with these types of innovations through the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative?

Roshni Nadar Malhotra: You know, in the next five years from now, we want to bring to the table some of the best water-oriented innovations that aim to improve decision making, protect and restore water quality and strengthen freshwater ecosystem resilience. We know these solutions will fill existing knowledge gaps. As I said, not so much is known about water from a freshwater perspective, maybe oceans a lot more. Improve data collection, purification, conservation.

And we hope that, you know, these solutions are adopted for protecting natural water resources across the water value chain. So it's not just when water enters a city and how it is used there in terms of the way it's recycled and reused and preserved, but the natural resources of water.

So that could be glaciers, that could be rivers, that could be lakes. At that point, they don't impact humans as much as they impact the biodiversity and the natural environment. So if we can do a lot more for that. I think that would be great. And, you know, as a global conglomerate, we also aim to set an example among peers that the most important time to invest in water is now.

Robin Pomeroy: Roshni Nadar Malhotra, the chairperson of HCL Technologies, that's the company that's sponsoring this UpLink challenge. Can you tell us about, give us an example of an UpLink innovator in this field?

Emanuela Orsini: Yes. So we already worked with some water related innovators. So last year we had a water related challenge called the Circular Water Cities Challenge. And in that challenge, we collaborated with a company called Wavin, formerly known as MetroPolder. What they did is that they created these smart roofs to capture and store rainwater that can be reused afterwards. So basically each roof has a smart valve and it's connected to the Internet to be able to anticipate big rain events and basically better manage water levels. So most recently, we spoke with Friso Klapwijk, who's the global director of urban climate resilience for Wavin. So let's hear more about their innovation and how their flat roofs work.

Friso Klapwijk, Global Director of Urban Climate Resilience, Wavin: One of the innovations that we developed is to use our flat roofs. If you look at our modern cities, there's a lot of flat roofs. And all these flat roofs are connected to a drainpipe that connects to a sewer. So the moment it starts to rain, it immediately flushes into the sewer system.

So the concept we developed is actually based on a Dutch concept of a polder, to be smart with water. So what we do is we store the water on the roof and with an activated valve, we can control the water level. So that is a way to to collect the water and to reuse it.

So the the polder roof system, the smart roof system, is basically a buffer system. So what we do is we elevate whatever you want to do on the roof, whether it's solar panels or a roof garden, we elevated a little, with a plastic medium, and then we add a smart control, we call it the Smart Drop. In this Smart Drop there's a valve, but there's also a set of sensors measuring the water table, measuring temperature, water temperature, and there is the forecast. So we have a rain bucket that measures the actual rain, but we also are connected to a server that tells us what is the upcoming rain events.

So that way, with these three components creating storage space to collect the water, a smart control and a set of sensors and the weather forecast, we can actually predict and be smart with rainwater.

So imagine when it rains, we close the valve and make sure that we store the water so it doesn't cause any problems on street level or combined sewer overflow. But also in a drought period when water evaporates, we can predict when we need to irrigate.

Robin Pomeroy: That's Friso Klapwijk of this Dutch company, Wavin, talking about these systems for collecting rainwater on the roof. What do they do with the rainwater?

Emanuela Orsini: Yeah. So it can be reused for irrigation and what they call blue-green roofs. So they can use this water for cooling buildings, flushing toilets as well. So really, rainwater can be used instead of drinking water for many things.

Robin Pomeroy: And so where is this happening?

Emanuela Orsini: Most of the projects are in Amsterdam. Rotterdam, other cities in the Netherlands, as well as the United States and also Guatemala now.

Robin Pomeroy: It's a really good example. So again, remind the listeners that if they have innovations, they'd better move quickly - I hope people are listening to this soon after it's published, but keep an eye on UpLink for other challenges that will be coming up. Where do they find out more about UpLink and how to enter UpLink challenges?

Emanuela Orsini: Yes. So right now you can sign up to UpLink at Make sure to follow us also on our social media channels and learn more about all of our innovators and investors working towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Robin Pomeroy: Emanuela, thanks for joining us.

Emanuela Orsini: Thank you so much for having me.

Robin Pomeroy: Emanuela Orsini, you also heard Roshni Nadar Malhotra, chairperson of HCL Technologies and Friso Klapwijk of Wavin.

There's lots more about water on our website and on previous episodes of Radio Davos, for example, the one where I speak to Matt Damon about his involvement in water projects.


Look for those on the website. Please subscribe to Radio Davos wherever you get your podcasts. If you would take just a couple of seconds to leave us a rating and maybe a few more seconds for a review. And join the conversation on the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook. This episode of Radio Davos was presented by me, Robin Pomeroy. Studio production was by Gareth Nolan. We'll be back next week. But for now, thank you for listening and goodbye.


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