“Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.”
Professor William Ashworth
It is now understood that water is an incredibly precious asset. As Thales would have said, it is the principle of all things, what allows the world to be such, to exist. Water is a fundamental right of all and allows life to flourish. Even today, however, particularly in many low-income countries, clean and accessible water is still a finite resource. The figures speak for themselves: in 2015, three out of ten people had no access to clean water, and six out of ten had no basic sanitary conditions (World Health Organization, 2019).
To make matters worse, forecasts for the future are worrying. Demand for water is increasing by 1% every year, with water shortages now occurring not only in the poorest countries, but also in many high-income countries. By 2050, many European countries could be affected by water shortages (Boretti & Rosa, 2019). Many factors will pose challenges to ensuring access to clean and plentiful water in the future, including population growth, environmental pollution, social inequality, industrialization, poverty, and climate change.
In the world of cleantech, we are quick to talk about the environmental and economic benefits of transitioning to a sustainable economy. And rightly so: As Solar Impulse Foundation’s Labeled Solutions show, clean solutions can deliver huge economic benefits. But beyond that, cleantech solutions hold potential to unlock a broad range of societal benefits too.
With many people still lacking essential services and goods and for a healthy and safe life, particularly in low-income countries, we ignore the social aspects of cleantech at our peril. Indeed, there is no separating the social, economic, and environmental aspects of cleantech: all three are inextricably linked and intertwined.
So, in a world where clean and accessible water is still desperately needed by billions of people, how can cleantech help to solve this challenge?
Clean water scarcity and society
There is a huge demand for water in modern society. Sectors such as agriculture and industry require substantial volumes of water, and in some cases, wastewater is simply discharged directly into the environment. This not only takes large quantities of precious, clean water from the natural environment, but can also pollute and transmit diseases to surrounding areas.
Water scarcity and poor water quality ends up affecting every aspect of people’s lives, causing hunger, diseases linked to poor hygiene, poverty, conflict and very often even compromises education, the basis of creating a better future. A lack of clean drinking water can increase the risk of diseases, particularly in children, which creates challenges for creating an educated, healthy population.
Credit: Bob Metcalf
Indeed, some research from low-income countries suggests that average salaries can increase by 10% for every additional year of school attended, highlighting the importance of having access to essential services like clean water. An estimated 300,000 children under five years of age die every year from diarrheal diseases (UN Water, 2021). The above points highlight the importance of clean and abundant water for human development, and it is no surprise that one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda is “ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all" (Carbonsink, 2021). We can therefore understand that clean water is directly linked to quality of life, and that ensuring access to clean water is vital in tackling underlying challenges for human development.
Solutions to address clean water scarcity
Whilst wider changes are needed, clean technology solutions can have a substantial impact on improving access to clean and safe water, delivering both social and environmental benefits. Many solutions exist within the Labeled Solutions which can address water scarcity and other issues, including:
UDUMA is an innovative and sustainable drinking water service for rural Africa. This solution provides a sustainable drinking water service for African villages. This allowed to replace pumps that have broken down or that were very old, plus it gives each inhabitant an electronic card for simplified payment of the quantities of water they need. With this solution 555 people can drink clean water and prevent them from illnesses, emitting less CO2 than the boiling water method and repairing much faster the breakdown at a water point. In so doing, the profitability is very high for the local economies, allowing a better quality of life.
ORISA is a water filter for populations with no access to drinking water. It is a portable family-sized water filter for NGOs and local organizations that ensures a sustainable supply of drinking water. The filter removes viruses and bacteria to fight the diseases. It is simple to use thanks to its manual, chemical-free operation. It is also 100% recyclable and repairable.
It is incredible how these solutions can literally change people’s life conditions: children can go to school normally, diseases can be tackled and women don’t have to walk long distances looking for water in dangerous places. Solutions like these offer improvements for both environmental and social aspects, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing clean water, delivering a higher quality life and a healthier environment. Two different solutions which seems to be simple at first can in fact change society for the better in countries and communities lacking access to essential services.
The bigger picture
To be able to hope for an improvement in issues like clean water scarcity, we also need to look at the system in which we are operating. Challenging and changing traditional economic perspectives, focused only on profit with a short-sighted vision, is part of the solution. The Solar Impulse Foundation aims to address this challenge by providing solutions that, while maintaining financial profitability, also enable a healthy planet and a dignified life for people, whilst polluting as little as possible and protecting the good of all, not only that of the individual.
Professor Benedicte Deryckere, a Solar Impulse Foundation Expert, noted how to address sustainability issues such as clean water, companies and society must look to new economic models to address underlying problems such as excessive consumption:
“Today we are producing and consuming too much. We eat more, we buy more clothes, and we throw them away, we have unsustainable consumption and that is only increasing the social, technical and environmental divide”.
On top of this, there is a need to ensure that all stakeholders in society play a role in creating a better future. As noted by Professor Deryckere, a problem exists in the fact that "today the business world tends to be more powerful than institutions, and institutions tend to be more powerful than civil society. We have to rebalance the three of them”.
According to Professor Deryckere, we are facing a “systematic phenomenon” when it comes to addressing issues such as clean water scarcity. She makes the points that just as access to the COVID-19 vaccine has been an issue for many countries, similar issues will be faced with water as water scarcity increases with climate change. Water is limited, and not every country has the same access to it, which will lead to geopolitical issues in the future (indeed, this is already being seen today in some regions).
Professor Deryckere emphasizes that there will be a need for placing a great value on water too: Taxation or banning is extremely powerful, and at a certain point is the only solution”. Indeed, in some cases water is going to be under such pressure that taxing and or limiting access will have to be a solution, not just to conserve water, but also to reinforce greater consciousness about the value and scarcity of water.
Whilst wider system changes are also needed, Professor Deryckere noted that the mission of the Solar Impulse Foundation to find new sustainable solutions is a vital part of the puzzle for ensuring access to clean water. Opinions on the solutions to issues related to water scarcity will vary, but there is one thing we can all agree on: the desperate need for a change.
Big decisions for the future
Despite improvements in recent decades, we are facing challenges with access to clean water supply. With increasing climatic change, these issues are set to continue and become even more pressing in many places. To ensure that access to clean water is available for everyone, strong action is needed: increasing agricultural efficiency, investing in grey and green infrastructure, and ensuring better treatment, reuse and recycling and water to name a few. Many of the Labeled Solutions can help with this, and we must also think of new perspectives from which to view our approach to water and other natural resources; to ask how we value these precious services; and to consider how companies and the governments treat these resources, too.