Nature and Biodiversity

Water to the people: a pathway through innovative technology and public-private partnerships

A dry lake bed, illustrating the potential of atmospheric water generators

Atmospheric water generators bring water to areas where water is scarce Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jonathan (Adetokunbo) Quarles
Founder & CEO, BTL Group
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation
  • Water scarcity continues to be a pervasive global challenge, cutting across developed and emerging markets, climates and socio-political dynamics.
  • Atmospheric water generation (AWG) technology is a promising emergency solution that can immediately generate drinkable water using moisture in the air.
  • Distribution of atmospheric water generation technology to communities in need can serve as an effective stopgap measure for municipalities facing immediate clean water shortages.

The statistics underpinning water scarcity are dire and noteworthy – approximately 770 million people lack access to clean water. That is one in ten people on the planet. The average woman in rural Africa walks 6 kilometres (about 3.7 miles) daily to haul 40 pounds of water.

The pervasive nature of the global water crisis, however, is such that it isn’t contained to developing parts of the world. In California, for example, over 2 million people use private wells that access groundwater. However, due to drought conditions, excessive industrial pumping of aquifers and, more recently, deeper drilling of industrial wells, local communities are having an increasingly hard time accessing adequate water. The state's farms and cities rely on underground aquifers for nearly 40% of their water and this rises in dry years. Nearly 90% of Californians draw on groundwater for part of their water supply.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis is another instance of America’s troubled relationship with clean water. The City of Flint’s decision to change its municipal water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River for budgetary reasons caused dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants to be released into the city’s municipal water supply. Originally from Flint, this emergency inspired me to found Quartz Water Source. While every water calamity is caused by a variety of factors, governments struggle to react quickly when time is of the essence.

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How technology can help

Privately funded research and development has spurred the creation and improvement of several technologies that are activated in the event of an emergency – to provide 'second-line' clean drinking water sources. 'Second-line' solutions do not replace municipal drinking water systems, but they can avert a disastrous situation.

An example of such technology is an atmospheric water generator, an extraction solution that mitigates the growing problem of depleted drinking water levels in the world. Simply put, an atmospheric water generator uses a cocktail of salts to pull water out of the air. Salt is a natural desiccant, capable of drawing and holding moisture. The wet salt is then heated to boiling point, while the steam is condensed and routed to filters inside the technology for processing.

A big advantage of a desiccant-based atmospheric water generator, the newest frontier of the technology, is that it’s more energy efficient than other options on the market.

The sample cooling-condensation process that underpins atmospheric water generator technology Image: ResearchGate

The latest atmospheric water generator also mineralizes water on the way out of the machine for improvements in nutritional value and taste. The resulting water is clean and free of chemicals and other hazards. In areas where water is scarce or polluted, an atmospheric water generator can address that quickly as well – powered by an industrial outlet or by solar panels, in the case of a natural disaster that impacts the electricity supply.

Atmospheric water generator technology was installed in the Hard Rock Community of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, bringing clean drinking water to a water-stressed region. Currently, the machines are producing approximately 200 gallons of clean drinking water for the community per day. In addition to examples of remedying water scarcity, atmospheric water generator technology has also been installed around parks and beaches in Abu Dhabi, in a recreational context, for visitors to enjoy quality drinking water on the go.

While an atmospheric water generator doesn’t work equally well everywhere – to unlock the maximum value of an atmospheric water generator device, temperatures should be several degrees above freezing and humidity above 40% – in ideal conditions, a commercial-scale atmospheric water generator unit can produce up to 10,000 litres per day. Such water generation levels cannot replace a municipal water system, but it can provide backup clean water when several commercial atmospheric water generator machines are grouped as a 'farm.'

Creative public-private partnerships enable wider distribution of second-line clean water solutions

This stop-gap solution, however, is not cheap. One mid-sized commercial unit can cost between $30,000 and $50,000. The communities that need this technology the most are also the ones that may not be able to afford it in the quantities needed. This is where public-private collaboration is key. Traditionally, this approach starts with philanthropic seed money, which attracts risk-averse private and public sector investment, but this can take a long time.

A faster deployment model we are exploring is based on an insurance concept. Instead of asking municipalities to front the funds for farms of atmospheric water generator machines in the middle of a crisis, municipalities make affordable recurring monthly payments. In the event of a water outage or contamination event, atmospheric water generator farms are deployed to the municipality in 48 to 72 hours, far outpacing a large-scale governmental response. The monthly recurring payments cover the financing and servicing costs of the machines.

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

Additionally, big data can greatly improve the predictability of water shortages and the pricing of atmospheric water generator solutions. Utilities, for example, have a tremendous amount of data on water. Analytics tools have been deployed in the distribution and consumption of data from smart water meters, which utilities can use to monitor and manage water usage more effectively. Water leakage can also contribute to water shortages. These are challenging to detect, but technology is helping here too. Kamstrup’s leak detector’s analytics module collects acoustic noise data from water meters, thereby enabling the location of leaks in service connections and distribution channels due to changes in the acoustic noise levels.

Water quality is another important factor in water shortages. The city of Chicago implemented a predictive model that revealed information about the beaches in Chicago, which had high levels of the bacterial E. coli. Harnessing the ability to aggregate all these analytics for a view into the timing and magnitude of upcoming water shortages is important for understanding how to plan for it through atmospheric water generators and other second-line clean water solutions.

When combined with an appropriate level of community engagement and triple-bottom-line business (people, planet, profit), this model can be a powerful stopgap solution where few exist today.

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

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