Is water tech the next frontier for investment?

Water scarcity is a major global challenge, and water-related technologies are becoming increasingly important.

Water scarcity is a major global challenge, and water-related technologies are becoming increasingly important. Image: Pexels/Olga Lioncat

Angeli Mehta
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  • There is a growing need for water technology solutions due to climate change and increasing water scarcity.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics are two key technologies that can be used to improve water efficiency.
  • Investors need to be prepared to take risks on water tech startups, as the sector is still in its early stages.
  • Governments need to create supportive regulations to help water tech startups scale up their solutions.

In 2018, when Cape Town residents stared into the abyss of the taps running dry, there was talk of towing an iceberg from Antarctica to provide much-needed water. Thankfully, entrepreneurs are coming up with less outlandish ideas to help tackle the global crisis of shrinking supplies of freshwater, which deprives more than 2 billion people of access to safe drinking water and threatens our planet’s life-support system.

But entrepreneurs need both investment capital and supportive regulations to turn their ideas into viable solutions. The United Nation’s water conference in March in New York attempted to put the water crisis squarely on the map. Investors with $3 trillion in assets urged governments to develop policies to deliver water security through ambitious targets to incentivise private investment. “Water use for agricultural, industrial and energy generation activities must be transformed, to reduce demand and ensure that productive activities do not exacerbate water scarcity conditions,” they said.

Addressing water shortages also contributes to net-zero ambitions – piping and treating drinking water and sewage is energy-intensive. In the United States, for example, drinking and wastewater systems account for 2% of the country’s energy consumption. And in the race to keep average warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, every tonne of CO2 matters.

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

Though water supplies are already being affected by global warming, water has been the Cinderella of climate investment. An analysis by the Climate Policy Initiative put public and private funding on water at just 3% of climate finance in 2019 and 2020.

“What we're doing by ignoring water is unbelievably dangerous. We have put untold trillions to work on behalf of the kilowatt hour. And we put basically nothing to work on behalf of the gallon,” says Tom Ferguson founder of Burnt Island Ventures, a specialist investor in early stage companies in the water sector. “We need to get better at telling our story; once we do, funds will follow.”

There’s no shortage of innovation in need of financial backing, whether its drawing water out of the atmosphere, using sunlight to turn seawater into drinking water, using the Internet of Things to deliver smart irrigation or to tackle waste.

Township residents queue to fill bottles of water at a borehole tap set up during a drought in South Africa.
Township residents queue to fill bottles of water at a borehole tap set up during a drought in South Africa. Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

In Kenya, and other parts of Africa, as much as 50% of the water extracted by utilities is lost to leaks. It’s a story that’s repeated around the world. Aging infrastructure and lengthy delays in pinpointing leaks mean that as often as three days a week, Nairobi’s taps can run dry, while consumers are expected to pay for water they don’t receive.

“Everybody believes that water is a crucial resource, and it's finite. But the investments towards water infrastructure have been overlooked for a very long time,” says entrepreneur Brian Bosire, who focuses on applying emergent technologies on Africa’s challenges.

“When you look at countries where climate change has a huge impact on water supplies and water sources, it's crucial for us to start deploying some of the best technologies we have: the Internet of Things to monitor water infrastructure, data analytics to predict water consumption and to bring efficiency on how we use water, and importantly, use the data that we are gathering on consumption to empower the end consumers on the various ways they can improve their water efficiency.”

That’s what his company HydroIQ is doing, in the process cutting the time to identify leaks on the distribution network from up to six months to minutes. Of almost four billion litres of water being piped through the system where HydroIQ technology is installed, it has saved around a billion being wasted in the past year.

People cool off with water leaking from a broken pipe valve during hot weather in Kolkata, India, April 19, 2022.
People cool off with water leaking from a broken pipe valve during hot weather in Kolkata, India, April 19, 2022. Image: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

“Our platform brings visibility to the entire network,” Bosire explains. Consumers can log in to an application to track their use, which has also helped cut consumption.

The system is running in a couple of other locations in Kenya, and Bosire hopes to roll out a first project in South Africa later this year. A pilot is also under way in Guatemala with a cement manufacturer building a smart city.

But scale-up is difficult. While water is political and utilities are slow to convince, Bosire says “investor awareness is one of the biggest challenges”.

Already more than 50% of the planet lives in cities. As more and more people move into cities, water needs to go further, even as climate change threatens supplies. As a new Blueprint for a Circular Water Smart Society, launched at the U.N. water week, points out, if those of us living in houses and apartments were able to reuse water for non-drinking purposes, tap water consumption could be greatly reduced.

“Circularity is where this gets solved,” suggests Ferguson of Burnt Island Ventures. “Using the same molecule, use it in whatever the process is, then clean it and put it back, over and over again. And that's the same for our homes as it is for semiconductors.”

A worker opens an irrigation gate to let the water flow from an irrigation canal, in Holtville, California, U.S., September 20, 2022.
A worker opens an irrigation gate to let the water flow from an irrigation canal, in Holtville, California, U.S., September 20, 2022. Image: REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci

In the UK, where individuals typically get through 150 litres of water a day, Kelda showers has designed a power shower system to cut water consumption in half, while a Scottish firm is trying to convince investors its greywater recycling system can make the difference. Flushing toilets with water fit to drink seems a waste of both water and energy resources.

“It’s just insane,” says Carolyn Hogg, managing director of Cascade Water Products. The company’s system (developed by Hogg’s husband) collects and disinfects bath and shower water which, in an average household, equates to the water consumed in flushing toilets. Such “greywater” recycling can cut consumption by 30%. Add in a water meter to raise awareness of use habits, and another 15% could be saved. Hogg says the system is self-cleaning and uses less energy in a year than the average household would consume in a day. A future iteration could allow for heat recovery, offering energy savings, too.

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But Hogg is despairing. The technology is ready to scale, but investors “just don’t seem to get it”, she says. Nor do policymakers, it seems. While the latest government policy highlights water efficiency and rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling doesn’t get a look in, yet it could save three times as much as efficiency measures. On top of that, it can take pressure off the sewage system at times of heavy rainfall, when the UK’s dated infrastructure gets overloaded and raw sewage is dumped into rivers and seas.

Industrial water could be circular, too. In many industries, from car to semiconductor manufacturing, “water is simply just a facilitating agent. It's needed to run the manufacturing process, but very little of it is actually being consumed, almost all of it is being wasted,” says Greg Newbloom, whose Seattle-based company Membrion, has developed an ion-exchange membrane, made out of silica, an abundant natural material Newbloom, a chemical engineer by training, observes that industrial wastewater has changed over the past 50 years, becoming more complex and difficult to filter with existing technologies.

“We watch companies that instead of trying to treat it (water), just truck the wastewater off site, and they have it boiled, or they add a bunch of chemicals to it to precipitate it out. Driving wastewater around is one of the least sustainable wastewater treatment practices we have, but it's super-common.” It’s also an energy-intensive practice.

People taste recycled wastewater at a water recycling facility in California.
People taste recycled wastewater at a water recycling facility in California. Image: REUTERS/David McNew

In industrial pilots, which are now moving to commercial adoption, Membrion says it is achieving over 90% water recovery, and commonly as high as 98%, depending on the amount of salt in the wastewater.

Even 90% recovery, which means a company would be sending 10 times less water to an evaporator, means 10 times less energy is consumed. Hitting 98% delivers a 50-fold improvement in energy savings. And like the industrial wastewater, Newbloom’s goal is to be able to make the membranes themselves recyclable.

There’s been no shortage of innovation in membrane technologies, but nine times out of 10 membranes that looked promising in the lab just don’t scale, says Newbloom “We really had to convince investors that we had a technology that was scalable, that we were going to beat those odds of being able to scale and … that we're going to still see the same level of value, or similar level of value, that we see elsewhere.”

However, with a performance improvement 10 times what exists today, “even if we ended up losing a little bit in that scale-up process, there was still plenty of room to be very successful with the technology,” he adds.

Newbloom is optimistic that an ecosystem of investors in water technologies is being created. Now more are needed to join them who are prepared to take the plunge.

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