Climate Change

Here are 3 ways tech can improve access to freshwater

Freshwater systems around the world are increasingly under threat from global warming.

Freshwater systems around the world are increasingly under threat from global warming. Image: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Stefan Ellerbeck
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Climate Change?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Climate Change is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Climate Change

Listen to the article

  • More than a quarter of the world’s population live in water-stressed countries, according to the United Nations.
  • Existing freshwater solutions like desalination plants are costly and also damage the environment.
  • Sustainable new technologies could help tackle the global water crisis.

The climate crisis is increasing water scarcity around the world.

More than a quarter of the global population, 2.3 billion people, live in water-stressed countries, according to the United Nations. When a territory uses 25% or more of its renewable freshwater resources it is classified as water-stressed.

A worsening global water crisis

Freshwater systems around the world are increasingly under threat from global warming, with average temperatures continuing to rise and droughts getting more intense.

In its Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 the UN outlines the human impact on freshwater systems: “decades of misuse, poor management, over extraction of groundwater and contamination of freshwater supplies have exacerbated water stress and deteriorated water-related ecosystems”.

When a territory uses 25% or more of its renewable freshwater resources it is classified as water-stressed.
When a territory uses 25% or more of its renewable freshwater resources it is classified as water-stressed. Image: UN.

Finding sustainable water solutions

Although water covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, only around 3% of it is freshwater. By 2030, the global demand for water will have exceeded the sustainable supply available by 40%.

An increasing number of people in water-scarce countries rely on desalinated water supplies where salt is removed from seawater. However this is a very costly as well as energy-intensive process, according to the UN. Another major drawback is that it produces a toxic brine which pollutes marine ecosystems.

That’s why many are hoping that new more sustainable technologies may be part of the answer to help solve the world's water problems. Here are three innovative tech solutions that could make a difference.

1. Floating solar stills

Solar still technology that uses sunlight to purify water is nothing new. But UAE-based start-up Manhat has given it a 21st century update, developing a device that produces zero-emissions or brine. Floating on the ocean surface, it collects the freshwater evaporated by the sun’s rays. The salt removed from the seawater is then deposited back into the sea.

The company is looking to use the technology to provide irrigation for floating farms. The few already in use around the world all depend on groundwater, or water from desalination plants that negatively impact the environment, it says.

However, Manhat’s current prototype can only produce 1.5 litres of freshwater a day, according to CNN. Its goal is to eventually produce 20 litres.

“We have to accept the fact that seawater should be a key player in providing freshwater,” the company’s founder Dr Saeed Alhassan Alkhazraji told CNN. “We need to have a solution that will minimize CO2 emissions and eliminate brine altogether.”

Loading...

2. Water harvesting hydrogels

Hydrogels have long been used in nappies and other personal hygiene products to absorb moisture. However, a team of researchers at the University of Texas have been experimenting with a specially developed hydrogel they say can extract large amounts of freshwater from the air, according to Phys.org.

The presence of a hygroscopic salt increases the moisture uptake of the gel. In 24 hours it was possible to extract nearly 6 litres of freshwater per kilo of material from air that contained 30% relative humidity, the research team says.

They believe further development of these next-generation “polyzwitterionic hydrogels” could help with access to freshwater in many parts of the world. “Atmospheric water harvesting is regarded as one of the promising strategies for freshwater production desirable to provide sustainable water for landlocked and arid regions,” the team says.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about closing the gap between global water demand and supply?

3. Using tech to fight algae

The increasing growth of toxic algae blooms in lakes is depriving millions of people of access to freshwater each year. It’s caused by a process called eutrophication when nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture and industry builds up in water bodies, changing entire ecosystems.

Dutch algae-control company LG Sonic has launched a non-profit organization called FutureProofLakes on a mission to conserve the ecosystems of the world’s lakes. It has developed solar-powered ultrasound transmitters which prevent algae blooms forming using soundwaves.

The project also uses satellite imagery and algorithms to collect real-time data on the quality of lakes around the world, identifying affected ecosystems before harmful algae blooms take hold.

The increasing growth of toxic algae blooms in lakes is depriving millions of people of access to freshwater each year.
The increasing growth of toxic algae blooms in lakes is depriving millions of people of access to freshwater each year. Image: WEF/LG Sonic.

These prediction models “enable communities to remediate their water sources and reverse the eutrophication process early. This is important in developing countries, as resources are not always available for monitoring or remediation. Due to global warming, these areas are often badly affected,” says LG Sonic CEO Yousef Yousef.

Yousef is a member of The Forum Of Young Global Leaders, a group of more than 1,400 professionals from 120 nationalities who are all working to improve the state of the world. Aligned with the World Economic Forum’s mission, it aims to drive public-private cooperation and make use of the opportunities global problems present to build a better future across sectors and boundaries.

Have you read?
Loading...
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

From São Paulo to Venice: 15 cities with ambitious zero-carbon projects

Victoria Masterson

April 12, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum