Global Health

World Water Day: These innovators are improving access to clean water

World Water Day 2023: to accelerate action on achieving the UN’s sustainability goal relating to water.

Initiatives like World Water Day aim to accelerate action on achieving the UN’s sustainability goal relating to water. Image: REUTERS/Daniel Morel

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Global Health

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Water is an increasingly stressed resource.
  • Initiatives like World Water Day aim to accelerate action on achieving the UN’s sustainability goal relating to water.
  • Technological innovations are helping make progress on clean water security.
  • Here we detail five areas - from cleaning up the wastewater sector to seawater desalination - that are benefitting from these new technologies.

For a planet nearly three-quarters covered in water, it is incredible how much we are struggling with access to clean water: 771 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean water close to their homes. And poor sanitation and dirty water continue to kill millions of people every year.

Our current progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 - clean water and sanitation for all - is significantly off track. And it is putting sustainable development goals more broadly at risk - because this lack of access to safe water is considered one of the biggest risks to societies globally.

World Water Day: to accelerate change, we need more action

World Water Day and the UN Water Conference, which take place in March each year, aim to accelerate action on water for the health of people and the planet. Research suggests governments need to work on average four times faster to meet SDG6 on time, but achieving this aim will rely on partnerships across the public, private and NGO space.

One such example is the 2030 Water Resources Group, a body on which the World Economic Forum has partnered with the World Bank and others. It aims to support and enable innovative solutions that support socio-economic development in all sectors connected to water.

A bar chart showing estimated share of global population with access to at least basic drinking water services in 2020. World Water Day 2023
Just 65% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and 57% of the population in Oceania has access to basic drinking water. Image: Statista.

Here are five ways innovation is helping make progress on clean water security.

1. Wastewater treatment

Four-fifths (80%) of the world’s wastewater is discharged without any treatment. And nearly half of the world’s population don’t have access to safely managed sanitation in their homes. This poor treatment of sewage and other wastewater is a major cause of disease and death from illnesses such as typhoid fever, cholera, diarrheal diseases and parasitic worms. It is also damaging coastal, marine and river ecosystems.

Indra Water makes treatment systems that recycle domestic and industrial wastewater for reuse. The Indian company can recover 95% of wastewater with its system, which is cheaper, more scalable and more easily deployed than traditional systems.

Epic Cleantec is also targeting wastewater, reducing water demand for large building operators in the US by up to 95%. Its modular system not only recycles water for non-drinking use, but also recovers energy from wastewater heat, which can be used to pre-heat domestic hot water supplies. It also creates sustainable soil improvers.

2. Cleaning polluted water

The demand for fresh drinking water is growing rapidly. By 2050 there is expected to be a 20-30% increase in water use due to industry, population growth and climate change. However, harmful chemicals, plastics and microorganisms are increasingly polluting our lakes, rivers and oceans.

Agriculture is one of the biggest sources of water contamination, with fertilizers, animal waste and pesticides washed into waterways by rain. Wastewater and sewage from homes and industry is another source. And stormwater run-off, when chemicals, oil and other contaminants are washed into waterways from impermeable surfaces, is another significant problem.

Wateroam is tackling the problem of contaminated drinking water with a portable filtration system which works in minutes. The technology, which is being deployed with a focus on rural and disaster-affected communities, works without electricity. It can be rolled out for as little as $2 per person per year and has already had an impact for over 250,000 people.

Openversum is bringing safe drinking water to people in Latin America, Asia and Africa, as well as creating opportunities for local entrepreneurs. It is training people to locally manufacture and distribute filters for its affordable water filtration system through a microfranchizing system. Its innovative manufacturing process has low production costs, and works with a biodegradable cartridge.

3. Seawater desalination

Desalination is the process by which the dissolved mineral salts in seawater are removed to create pure water. It is seen as an important potential source of potable water given world shortages, but much of the technology involved is still in development and/or expensive to use. It is frequently energy-intensive, using a lot of fossil fuel.

Canadian-based Oneka is developing a desalination process using wave power. The movement of the sea powers its pumping, filtration and desalination system, which can provide water for between 20 and 1500 people per day. In this way, its system requires no electricity, or land on which to operate, and generates no greenhouse gases.

Another company using a renewable energy source to power its desalination efforts is Desolenator. The company has created the world’s first solar thermal desalination solution, which uses no harmful chemicals and is able to produce water in a range of purities. For example, as well as drinking water, it can create ultra pure water for speciality processes such as producing green hydrogen.

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

4. Industry data monitoring

Technology and data are crucial to monitoring and measuring water, from helping assess its safety to better understanding where we can limit its use.

Examples of innovators working in this area include bNovate, a Swiss start-up which uses technology to analyze the microbial content of water to ensure its safety. Routine water surveillance relies on a system which can take days to give results and only detects 1% of bacteria. bNovate technologies can count 99% of bacteria in just 20 minutes.

NatureDots, meanwhile, is using digital technology to enable real-time monitoring of aquafarms. Its product tracks both water and fish health using AI, helping keep inland fisheries healthy and assisting in ecosystem restoration, conservation and protection.

5. Innovative water harvesting

Water harvesting is another method of getting water resources to where they are lacking. It relies on collecting and storing water from the rain or air. It can be as simple as collecting the rainwater run-off from large surfaces such as roofs to more tech-enabled solutions for arid and semi-arid environments.

Majik Water is an atmospheric water generator powered by social enterprise. It uses solar thermal energy and sponge-like desiccant materials to provide a low-cost, energy-efficient way of bringing water to people in arid and semi-arid regions. Its system pulls water directly from the air, and its proof of concept can generate 10 litres of water a day.

Global conglomerate HCL has made available a $15 million investment over five years to support entrepreneurs in freshwater resource management. HCL has partnered with UpLink, the innovation platform of the World Economic Forum, to connect highly promising start-ups with the funding. Learn more about UpLink 'aquapreneurs' and their engagement in the UN Water Conference here.

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