Nature and Biodiversity

The world has a water pollution problem. Here’s how innovation can help solve it

A river experiencing water pollution with factories on the shoreline

Water pollution is beatable and Asia is hoping to lead the way. Image: Tarek Badr/Unsplash

Tania Strauss
Head, Food and Water, World Economic Forum
Sundararajan Mahalingam
President - Strategy, HCL Corporation
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions
  • Mismanagement in agricultural production, city sewage and industrial waste are major contributors to Asia's water pollution challenges.
  • At the same time, Asia offers pioneering infrastructure, policy and new venture solutions to drive water innovation forward.
  • The third UpLink Aquapreneur challenge is sourcing high-potential solutions globally to prevent water pollution and reduce the environmental impacts of contaminated water.

Safe and clean water is essential for life on Earth, productive societies and resilient economies. Water pollution threatens lakes, rivers and oceans and our soils and groundwater sources. Heavy metals and toxic chemicals are degrading the quality of water. They are polluting water sources as a result of mismanagement of water in agricultural production, industrial use and insufficient sewage treatment infrastructure. A shared and global challenge, water pollution requires localized collective action. In Asia, the threat from water pollution is pronounced and stakeholders are coming together to take action.

In Asia and the Pacific, economies continue to grow, with a regional GDP growth forecast of 4.5% in 2024, this vast region offers pioneering infrastructure, policy and new venture solutions for addressing water pollution worldwide.

Yet, as the continent's economies continue to grow, with a regional GDP growth forecast of 4.5% in 2024, Asia offers pioneering infrastructure, policy and new venture solutions addressing water pollution challenges worldwide.


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

Asia and the impacts of water pollution

In China, we find a global manufacturing superpower. Its production exceeds that of the nine next largest manufacturers combined. The gains in productivity have taken a cost on groundwater. Up to 90% of the country's groundwater is contaminated by toxic human and industrial waste dumping, along with agricultural fertilizers, rendering approximately 70% of rivers and lakes unsafe for human use.

Leaders are addressing China’s water management challenges. The Sponge City initiative, for example, a nature-based solution to retain water at its source, has 16 pilot cities exploring how the landscape can be used to reduce and clean water flow in urban areas.

In Vietnam, the country is prioritizing sustainable intensification of agricultural production, accounting for 12% of the country’s GDP in 2023. With the growth in agricultural output, the Mekong Delta faces challenges related to increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, which if mismanaged can lead to nutrient pollution and chemical contamination in the river system. However, leaders have been taking a systems approach to drive vast improvements in water quality across the nation. This increased access to clean water in rural areas from 17% to 50% between 1993 and 2020.

India, with its population predicted to surpass 1.5 billion by 2029, faces a mounting sewage treatment challenge. As the country’s population climbs, greater pressure is placed on its public water infrastructure, with over 70% of sewage remaining untreated. To tackle water and sewage pollution, city and regional governments are driving positive change in water use and reuse. In 2021, for example, Chennai became the first city in India to recycle its wastewater at scale to meet industrial needs. The story of Chennai’s success, deploying Tertiary Treatment Reverse Osmosis plants, serves as an inspiration for more cities in India and beyond to explore similar solutions.

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Tackling water pollution

These three examples from China, Vietnam and India highlight water quality as a foundational component of economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and human health. In Asia, and throughout the world, tackling water pollution is essential to create healthy and prosperous societies existing in harmony with nature.

Regulation is a key lever that policymakers can pull and water-focused ventures can seek to influence to tackle water pollution challenges across Asia. China’s Water Ten Plan is a comprehensive policy that aims to reduce water pollution, promote water conservation and improve water quality across the country through measures, such as stricter industrial wastewater discharge standards, enhanced monitoring and enforcement and significant investments in wastewater treatment infrastructure. These types of regulations are positive for the environment and they offer significant opportunities for wastewater tech firms.

In conjunction with regulatory tools, the Asian Development Bank estimates that the continent will need to invest $800 billion in water infrastructure from 2016 to 2030 to continue its growth trajectory, alleviate poverty and respond to climate change. Significant investment into water infrastructure, though capital intensive, will be required to address Asia’s water pollution challenges.

Singapore, a pioneer city for water management, offers another strong example of the leadership policymakers can take to tackle water pollution. In addition to its progressive water policies to reduce water waste, Singapore is leading the way with its Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme. This integrates urban planning with water management, through nature-based solutions, to transform Singapore's waterways and reservoirs into beautiful and clean streams, rivers and lakes. Initiatives like these use natural systems to manage stormwater, improve water quality and enhance the living environment.

Water innovation in Asia

Alongside policymaking leadership, early-stage innovation is an essential component in addressing water pollution challenges in Asia. Accompanying Singapore’s pioneering approach to water infrastructure investment, the country is committed to advancing water research and enterprise development. Under the Research, Innovation, and Enterprise Plan 2025, Singapore has allocated $220 million towards water technology and resource circularity innovation.

To scale water innovation in Asia, Imagine H2O, an international water accelerator, opened its Singapore hub in 2019. Since the hub's launch, Imagine H2O Asia has supported 50 watertech businesses and helped design and co-finance technology pilots across eight countries in the region in collaboration with public and philanthropic partners.

Indra, part of the Imagine H2O Asia Cohort 3 and the UpLink Aquapreneur 2023 Cohort, addresses key pain points in the wastewater treatment industry through its economic, compact and smart water treatment systems. Headquartered in Mumbai, India, Indra’s treatment systems process a wide range of pollutants from sewage through to industrial water waste, with a water recovery rate of 95%.

UpLink’s Tackling Water Pollution Challenge

To source innovative startups with solutions to address issues related to water quality and its environmental impacts, UpLink has launched the Tackling Water Pollution Challenge. UpLink is the World Economic Forum’s open innovation platform that connects early-stage entrepreneurs with the partners and funding they need to scale. Up to ten winning solutions will each be eligible to receive a CHF175,000 ($195,258) financial award, generously made available by HCL.

Each submission should address at least one of four focus areas:

• Offer water quality solutions for households

• Drive new approaches to water management

• Prevent contamination at source

• Optimize public water and wastewater infrastructure

The winning submissions, recognized as Top Innovators, become part of the UpLink Innovation Ecosystem. This curated programme provides visibility, connections and targeted support, alongside the opportunity to participate in select World Economic Forum and partner-led events, projects and communities.

The UpLink Innovation Ecosystem is a thriving community of organizations, governments, foundations, philanthropists, impact investors and experts committed to driving systems change by supporting entrepreneurs and scaling impactful ventures.

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