Climate Change

How 3 innovative startups are tackling Latin America's devastating water crisis

From affordable filtration to efficient farming, here's how Latin America is tackling water crisis.

From affordable filtration to efficient farming, here's how Latin America is tackling water crisis. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Greif

Gabi Thesing
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Latin America is suffering the effects of a three-year drought that’s had a devastating impact on humans, livestock and crops.
  • In Uruguay’s capital, tap water is now deemed undrinkable because the freshwater reservoirs have run dry.
  • Here are three World Economic Forum Uplink companies that can help to maintain water safety in the most vulnerable areas.

Imagine turning on your tap to get a refreshing glass of water, only to find that it tastes really salty. This is the unfortunate reality for many citizens of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, as they come to terms with a climate change-induced water crisis.

Montevideo’s tap water is now basically undrinkable, Carlos Santos, a member of the National Commission for the Defense of Water and Life and a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, told CNN. “Even pets avoid it.”

Men buy water can at a supermarket, amid a historic drought that has left reservoirs dry and Montevideo with only days worth of water, sparking protests and forcing the government to subsidize bottled water, in Montevideo, Uruguay
Residents of Montevideo queue to buy bottled water, as their tap water is too salty. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Greif

This is just one example of the devastating impact a three-year drought is having on Central South America as La Niña, the formidable weather pattern, tightens its grip on the region. Water scarcity has hit the region since 2019, with rivers and freshwater reservoirs drying up, meaning no access to water for crops and livestock.

Last year was Argentina’s driest for 60 years, halving its annual harvests in wheat and soy, which in turn is expected to lead to export deficits of 25-50%, exacerbating an economic downturn and soaring inflation rates.

Argentina’s annual harvests in wheat and soy have halved due to water crisis.
Argentina’s annual harvests in wheat and soy have halved due to water crisis. Image: Reuters

Even though rain in July has brought some short-term relief to the region, the climate crisis means additional help is needed.

Discover

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

Here are three companies from Uplink, the World Economic Forum’s innovation platform, that offer solutions to improve water security in the developing world.

Openversum – affordable water filtration systems

The Swiss company, Openversum, aims to tackle the challenge of safe and affordable drinking water by combining a filtration membrane system with microfranchising. This can provide millions of people in Latin America, Asia and Africa with access to safe drinking water while at the same time creating thousands of work opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

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Treatment technologies often fail because of price, practicality, or simply because users do not trust or like them. The second biggest challenge is to bring the technology to market.

Openversum’s all-in-one drinking water filter removes pathogens, pesticides, heavy metals and micropollutants and lowers the risks of recontamination. At the same time, it trains entrepreneurs to locally manufacture and distribute its filters, creating employment and helping those in need.

Kilimo – using technology for more efficient farming

Agriculture consumes approximately 80% of the freshwater in developing countries, so this is where water safety needs to start. Several studies have demonstrated that farmers can achieve 20% greater efficiencies by making data-driven decisions using existing technologies, according to Andrea Ramos, Climate Adaptation Lead, Latin America, Kilimo, a climate technology company based in Argentina.

Technology adoption in farming has been very slow – to date, only 12% of farmers use any data tools for irrigation, says Ramos.

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Kilimo has developed a model that connects farmers willing to use technology with companies that have made water-positive commitments and are willing to pay for those savings.

Kilimo saved 72 billion litres of water in 2022, says Ramos, equivalent to two months of water consumption for the whole of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

Oneka – desalination by sea power

Canadian company Oneka develops and commercializes autonomous desalination systems that turn seawater into fresh water. It uses the movement of the sea’s waves to power a pumping and filtration system.

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Its units, which require no electricity and generate no greenhouse gases, can provide water for between 20 and 1,500 people per day, depending on consumption.

In April, Oneka launched a pilot project in Chile, on the coast of Algarrobo, a seaside town around 80 kilometres from Chile’s capital, Santiago. Like many of its Latin American neighbours, Chile is suffering from water shortages.

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