Nature and Biodiversity

UN Water Conference: How 'aquapreneurs' are innovating to solve the water crisis

People attend the 2023 United Nations Water Conference at the United Nations in New York City, U.S.

The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades came to a close on 24 March. Image: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

Laura Beltran
Digital Media Specialist, World Economic Forum
Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The first UN Water Conference in almost 50 years has closed with the adoption of the Water Action Agenda to tackle the water crisis.
  • Sustainably managing and conserving water will require investment and innovation.
  • The World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform for social innovation is supporting innovators from its Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative.
  • Here three "aquapreneurs" explain how they're helping people access clean drinking water.

“Water is a human right and the common development denominator to shape a better future. But water is in deep trouble.”

So said UN Secretary-General António Guterres as he opened the United Nations Water Conference in New York on 22 March.

“Water is humanity's lifeblood. From the food we eat to the ecosystems and biodiversity that enrich our world, to the prosperity that sustains nations, to the economic engines of agriculture, manufacturing and energy generation, to our health, hygiene and survival itself.”

The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades came to a close on 24 March, with the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, a “milestone” action plan containing almost 700 commitments to protect “humanity’s most precious global common good”.

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The World Economic Forum’s UpLink team was in New York supporting 14 innovators from the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative who were attending the UN Water Conference.

UpLink is the open innovation platform of the World Economic Forum, which connects social entrepreneurs working to solve the world's most difficult challenges with a whole network of people and organizations from the public sector, private sector, investors and academia.

The "aquapreneurs" are tackling water scarcity and insecurity problems in innovative ways, from sustainable desalination to using wastewater as a resource.

Here are just three of the entrepreneurs explaining what inspired them.

Beth Koigi, Co-founder, Majik Water, Kenya

Majik Water makes devices that together create 200,000 litres of pure drinking water from the air each month.

More than half of Kenya’s population does not have access to safe water and around 80% of the country’s land mass is arid or semi-arid – essentially desert-like conditions.

“In the past few years we've been receiving less and less rainfall. That means that our natural water reservoirs have reduced in their levels, and this has impacted communities in a big way,” says Koigi.

“When you have less water, you have more water contamination and more spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera. When we are experiencing drought, we have more cholera outbreaks. We also experience economic challenges, such as farming, and these translate to food insecurity and many other challenges.

“It’s quite common for children below five years to get waterborne diseases. But over and above bacterial contamination and other microbial contaminants, we have a unique challenge where our water has very high levels of fluoride and arsenic. So you can't consume that water directly.”

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“The amount of freshwater in the atmosphere is six times that of all rivers around the world in volume. So this is a huge water resource that can actually create drinkable water to communities in need,” says Koigi.

“Using solar energy, air is pulled into the device through huge fans, and then it's passed through the condensing chambers where the humidity is condensed into water droplets and collected. And then we pass that into the filtration system to remove any micro-organisms that may have grown in the device.”

The capacity of the devices varies from 25 litres for a household, to 500 litres per day for a small community, such as Kibera slum in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, which provides clean drinking water to 650 students. In total, Majik Water has 35 devices benefiting around 1,900 people.

Stats predicting the extent of the water crisis. Water Conference. aquapreneurs
A snapshot of the water crisis. Image: UN

Kevin Mercer, President and Co-founder, RainGrid Inc, Canada

The idea behind RainGrid is to make cities more water sustainable and water positive, by enabling property owners and communities to capture and reuse rainwater.

“In urban centres, rain largely lands on rooftops. So 70% of a city is hard surfaces. The majority of that is building rooftops and particularly residential rooftops,” says Mercer.

“Water runs off roofs, tends to create a flash flood of hot, fast and dirty water that gets into the sewer system and then discharges into a local river or lake, or nearby marine ecosystem. Surface water pollution is the number one threat to freshwater ecosystems globally.

“When we take rooftops offline by harvesting the rain and reusing it or putting it back in the groundwater table, we are recharging the base ground flow that urban rivers no longer get because the city is so impervious," he explains.

“Or we recharge the ability of individuals to use rainwater in place of potable water, which is very energy intensive and hence has a high carbon footprint and a significant cost for people and cities as well.”

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What is the green infrastructure and the technology and how does it help cities?

“Artificial intelligence (AI) reads the regional weather forecast. It then correlates that to the roof area of the house and the volume of available storage in the cistern. And then when the predicted rainfall on that area of roof is greater than the volume of available storage in the cistern, the AI and the Internet of Things work together," says Mercer

“The sensors in the cistern open a valve on the cistern and it drains out water to the groundwater table recharge so the system can store the subsequent rainfall that's coming. Our goal is net-zero runoff from properties.”

ARGoN - Aggregated Rain Grid Network Systems - The Internet of Rain. Water Conference. aquapreneurs
How the Aggregated Rain Grid Networks (ARGoN) works. Image: RainGrid

What was your message to the UN Water Conference?

“The path to clean water starts where the rain falls. We have built our cities. We have expended very huge sums of money trying to manage rainfall as wastewater.

“It's time to change our perspective on rainfall to one of a circular economy of rain that finds the value for the individual property owners and for the community at large, of not wasting water, not creating polluted runoff, and of restructuring our cities so that we create a circular economy of the most precious resource we have,” Mercer adds.

Laura Stocco, CTO and co-founder, Openversum

Swiss start-up Openversum has designed a filtration system that brings water security for people in Latin America, but also empowers them to become entrepreneurs through a micro-franchising business model.

“I think the biggest misunderstanding about water is the actual impact that not having it creates – and the ripple effect that having it creates,” says Stocco.

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“When we have access to safe water and we don't have to question it, we forget that the only replacement to water is water. There is no other solution. It impacts your health. It impacts your ability to go to work, to attend school. It’s really a fundamental human right, which we forget when we have access to it on a daily basis.”

Openversum works in hard-to-reach rural communities in Latin America, to address the lack of access to safe drinking water.

“We created a drinking water filter that is equipped with a membrane that doesn’t need all of the toxic chemicals that are typically used in membrane manufacturing. The water filter combines different layers of removal, that helps remove not only pathogens but also heavy metals and pesticides. It comes at a very low cost for very high efficiency, and that makes it available for populations who, right now, cannot access such technology,” Stocco explains.

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Through a micro-franchising business model, the company also creates entrepreneurs in rural areas.

“Technology alone is not sufficient. We looked at the hurdles to implementation and a major one is a lack of local expertise. No one has been trained to repair technologies, to maintain them, and they end up being misused or unused," she adds.

“We realized that by creating ownership of the products in the beneficiaries, so the people buying the filter but also in the person having to maintain it, we can ensure a sustainable solution because it's to the benefit of everybody for this to be maintained, economically, and health-wise.

“Our greatest asset is our scalability because we digitalise every micro-franchising process on a digital platform that our entrepreneurs can use. They can record the sales; they can track their impact and monitor it.”

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

The company is looking to expand to Africa and South-East Asia to help more people, like Maria in Colombia:

“We went to households and we did water quality tests together with the households, so women could test the quality of the water they were giving to their children and see whether it was contaminated with E.coli," Stucco says,

“When the results came back and it was, Maria cried so much and said, ‘I can't believe I'm giving this to my children and I don't have another choice’. Having our filter, she's now safe, her children are safe.

“Our entrepreneurs in Ecuador actually asked us: 'Can you give us some other products that we could micro-franchise? It's a great way to empower communities. We want more.' And yes, that's very inspiring.”

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