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Solving the water crisis: corporations are not investing enough

Today, 711 million people already lack access to safe water. The UN estimates that by 2025 1.8 billion people will live in water-stressed regions. New technologies are available, but they lack funds

Reducing water usage is possible

Sixty percent of the human body is water. Water is the fluid that pours from the faucet, appeasing thirst and nourishing soils for agriculture. Water is also one of the main causes of migration flows, as floods caused by climate change are endangering an increasing number of lives across the planet. The melting of ice into water is one of the most worrying issues of our time. Water is the one condition for life to thrive on Earth – making up seventy percent of its surface. Its abundance or scarcity determines living conditions and can be either a blessing or a threat. 

In most of the West, they take for granted the abundance of water. This is the effect of having easy available access to it at any time, in any desired quantity. Matt Boczkowski, CEO of Aquaporin agrees. «There is a disconnect between the importance of water to our lives, its role in society and the value associated with it». Due to socio-economic factors and population density, global water consumption has increased by one percent every year since 1980. 

Water distress data

By 2050 they expect a further rise of between twenty and thirty percent. A rhythm the planet cannot possibly keep up with. As of 2019, Estonia was the country that consumed the most water. With 1,213 cubic meters per capita, followed closely by the U.S. with 1,206 cubic meters per capita. The most worrying figure is not water consumption but the availability of renewable freshwater resources. Consumption becomes excessive and unsustainable only when sources of freshwater become scarce. If rates of freshwater withdrawal begin to exceed the renewable flows, resources are under stress.

Here, the worrying pattern of consumption concerning developed countries is confirmed. Water extraction per capita reaching 1,543 cubic meters a year in the U.S., as opposed to in developing countries like Congo, where the same figure is down to eleven cubic meters a year. Sticking to a geographical perspective, a further issue is registered in central Asia. Here outdated infrastructure, poor regional cooperation, and heavy irrigation of agricultural crops come together to form a water crisis of their own. One that started with the acceleration of local industrialization in combination with the end of Soviet resource-allocation policies. This is why, despite their size, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are among the most water-consuming countries on the planet. 

Problematizing the conversation around water issue 

The UN estimates that by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in water-stressed regions. That’s more than a quarter of the population. As of today, 711 million people already lack access to safe water, with an estimated 122 million people depending on surface water, such as that from a river, to meet their basic needs. Statistics from 2019 say that 1 million children a year under the age of five are already dying.

Because they lack basic access to water and sanitation. According to the European Environmental Agency, in 2022 eighteen percent of European citizens are already living in water-stressed areas. An average of 282 million people have to walk in search of water every day. The majority being women, young girls and children which declines school attendance at a significant rate. With temperatures rising, and the planet heating and drying, these figures are getting worse.

The fifth global risk

Problematizing the conversation around this issue also means seeing it as an opportunity. The World Economic Forum considers it as the fifth global risk in terms of impact to society. «Studies on our work in India determined that access to water and sanitation enhance household income, boost productivity, and reduce illness». Says Heather Arney, Manager of Insights and Innovations at Water.org. Arney has established a unit within Water.org to measure the organization’s impact and generate insights that inform decisions and compel action.

At the same time, she explains, «safe water, sanitation, and hygiene could save the lives of 297,000 children under the age of five each year». Putting water at the heart of public discussion is key. «In terms of the recent global pandemic and the potential for another: water is the most basic personal protective equipment we have. You cannot wash your hands if you don’t have water». In the past ten years, Water.org has reached over 40 million people using affordable household level lending to help them install and own water solutions in their homes. 

Most-to-least water consuming industries: agriculture, industry and household

Issues surrounding water distribution are not just related to geography and socio-economic status, but also to scope. The three main categories among which we can divide water use, in order of most-to-least consuming, are agriculture, industry and household. Agriculture is by far the most intense. Seventy percent of all water withdrawn each year is for growing and farming, to satisfy global food demand. India – the country with the highest consumption in this category – nearly doubled its agricultural water consumption between 1975 and 2010. The same trend happens almost everywhere.

A socio-economic divide reoccurs here, though overturned. On average low-income countries use ninety percent of their yearly water withdrawals for agricultural activities, in middle-income countries the figure is seventy-nine percent, and in high income countries it goes down to forty-one percent. Some countries in Latin America, South Asia and Africa use more than ninety percent for agricultural activities; peaking in Sudan with ninety-six percent; while countries like Germany and the Netherlands use less than one percent. This overturn is deceptive as Sudan exports most of the food it produces. With agriculture constituting its main source of income and accounting for more than thirty-five percent of its GDP. Ninety percent of these exported agricultural products go in the Netherlands. This pattern is repeated in other low-income countries, meaning their water and soil are being used, or even exploited, to produce goods that are then shipped to high-income states. 

Vertical farming to reduce water usage in agriculture

Professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University, microbiologist, and author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. Dickinson Despommier, explains that one solution for consuming less while producing more is vertical farming. Vertical Farming is a modular system for growing food vertically in a controlled environment indoors, instead of horizontally like in conventional agriculture. «Reducing water usage by up to ninety-five percent», this system is all but new. «The technology is well-known, it’s been in existence since 1938 and even before then». Still not nearly as widespread as one would imagine given its perks. Due to a number of market and public health education issues; vertical farming is yet to win over the trust of traditional consumers.

Nemo’s Garden in Italy

However it is recognized by experts as having the potential to seize a big share of future agricultural production, while ensuring food demand is met at a lower environmental cost. A project that stands on the same ground is Nemo’s Garden in Italy. The first underwater cultivation of terrestrial plants. Nemo’s Garden uses underwater transparent bubbles (biospheres) that house edible plants. For now, results have been reached in the growing of thyme, marjoram, basil, tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce, among others.

In a similar way to vertical farming, the aim is to maximize growth while minimizing the need for irrigation, in this case by 100 percent. The daily food needs of one person take about 3,000 liters to produce. By 2050 demand is expected to increase by seventy percent. To satisfy human needs while respecting the planet, agriculture must regenerate to become resource-efficient and self-sustainable. In order to get there, achieving circularity is key and technologies like vertical farming and desalinations will help us move in that direction. 

Industry’s water withdrawal Aquaporin and Sanivation 

Industry is the second highest cause for water withdrawal, which also includes power generation making up roughly twenty percent of the global total. Here, the risk is not just overconsumption, but active damage. According to Matt Boczkowski, CEO of Aquaporin «the fact that eighty percent of all industrial wastewater on a global scale is released into the environment without adequate treatment is an ecological disaster happening in slow motion». This threat is ongoing and its full potential is not yet known. «We are discovering different types of pollutants that are not removed adequately with traditional technologies. This may also have long term impacts on our health». The substances that many industries recklessly pollute water with are dangerous and long-lasting.

«Most of us has PFAS [artificial chemicals used to produce a range of products that remain in the environment for a long time, endangering the health of people and animals] in their blood from polluted drinking water». The problem is worrying but can also provide us with opportunities for advancement; in this case, by redefining what waste means. «Wastewater could be a resource instead of being a waste», suggests Boczkowski. «This comes at a cost, but quite often resources could be recovered from wastewater if the profitability equation made sense». By applying a circular mindset, what was a waste before can now be given a new life and purpose. This is where political action must also pitch in. «Wouldn’t it be great if we had the necessary policies and practices in place. So that extracting resources from waste was made a priority before new and fresh resources were exploited?». 

LAMPOON The water purifier ONE, with Aquaporin
The water purifier ONE, with Aquaporin Inside membrane, developed using aquaporins, nature’s own water filter, responsible of transporting and purifying water in all living cells

Using, and reusing, the water that is already there in the system

In recent years, companies like Aquaporin and Sanivation have made an appearance on the wastewater scene. Aquaporin originated from Nobel Prize winning science; after Professor Peter Agre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003 for the discovery of a water channel in living cells – the aquaporin protein. Aquaporin, has the aim of «reusing nature’s way of filtrating water in a more industrial contex. To preserve the Earth’s most valuable resource: water».

It draws on the science by using biomimicry, a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges. This is based on a rather simple idea. Since the beginning of time, nature has solved its problems with well-adapted design, life-friendly chemistry, and smart material and energy use. Water is a good example: «Aquaporin proteins filter water in all living organisms. It is actually the process that filters most water on earth today. However few people know this as it is hidden in nature. We can observe how things occur in nature, but it is a different challenge to borrow and industrialize this»

Turning an astronaut’s urine into drinking water

One gram of aquaporins can filter 700 liters per second. According to Boczkowski, this technology may go as far as having the potential of «turning an astronaut’s urine into drinking water». Sanivation picks up the waste slacks. After registering growing waste processing needs from septic tanks and pit latrines; especially in low-income counties, their technology intakes fecal sludge from exhauster trucks.

Outputs biomass fuels to replace firewood in industrial boilers, transforming the waste par excellence into a valuable and practical asset. Revenue from the sale of this fuel covers operational costs, making the project circular and transparent at all levels. «Each plant that we deploy ensures waste is safely managed. Creates local employment, prevents environmental pollution, and saves trees through our innovative biomass fuels». Much like the emerging solutions in the agricultural sector, it is about using, and reusing, the water that is already there in the system, rather than having to withdraw freshwater. 

Consumption in household 

The third highest cause for water consumption, making up roughly ten percent of yearly withdrawals, is household use. Here, personal responsibility is key, along with the necessity of the implementation of smarter solutions so that public water use can be improved and its impact minimized. What remains certain is that prompt and meticulous change is needed in the agricultural and industrial fields, those with the heaviest water footprint. As the professionals we have spoken to confirm, the technology to fix this is already available. What is lacking is investment; even when investing is convenient, both in terms of profit and the limiting of the environmental costs of production. Investing in water and sanitation has considerable economic benefits, an estimated 1.5 percent increase in global GDP. In the meantime, an estimated 260 billion U.S. dollars is lost globally each year due to a lack of basic water and sanitation. 

Lack of funding – JUST Water and Water.org 

Drew FitzGerald, is co-founder of JUST Water and 501CTHREE. He states in very clear terms that «there are many ways in which innovations either do or do not make it out of the lab». More often than not, the outcome depends on money. During his time advising several schools and initiatives at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), FitzGerald came across the concept of «the innovators’ valley of death».

An explanation for why a large number of projects don’t make it out, piling up in a valley that holds no future. As opposed to social media and messaging platforms, which have proven to generate steady and quick profit, environmental technology «requires more patience». Time and patience tend not to get along well with the market rules. «It’s going to take three to five years to prove if they work, and venture capitalists don’t have that», and thus are unlikely «to invest in the next water filtering membrane»

The notion of patient capital

Even if money from private investment is not there, «we as humans and the planet need this technology». It was also at MIT that FitzGerald met Sarah Kearney. She has managed to solve the problem of a lack of capital. By combining the private sector with philanthropy in a way that is legal and transparent. «Studying the U.S. tax code, she found that charitable donations could go to for-profit startups». This notion of patient capital could be an answer to the lack of interest from big investors to finance emerging environmental projects.

«The most valuable thing I saw at MIT», recounts FitzGerald, «was not a hardware or a software. It was a funding theory about how there is an investment gap threatening the entire planet and that we need to do something about». From then onwards, FitzGerald has worked with Kearney to attract big capital to water and energy innovators that otherwise would have ended up in the ‘valley of death’. JUST Water and 501CTHREE continue their work to make bottled water more sustainable. With attention to circularity, sourcing, and providing free filtered water to areas under stress. 

Profitable investments and the notion of patient capita 

The same issue affects individuals as well as startups. «What most people lack is access to capital. They simply cannot save enough to install a tap or a toilet in their house». Globally, there is an 18 billion U.S. dollar demand for affordable financing to meet the water and sanitation needs of individuals. Here, it is more a case of installing water taps and toilets than it is of developing new technologies.

According to data gathered by Water.org, 114 billion U.S. dollars per year is needed to achieve safely managed water and sanitation for all by 2030. Current investments amount to 28.4 billion U.S. dollars per year. This leaves a gap of 85.6 billion U.S. dollars. It will take three times the current investment to achieve universal access to safely managed water and sanitation. Water.org is working to try and fix this, starting with the daily needs of people across the planet. 

WaterEquity to solve the global water crisis

«There are millions of families spending a large portion of their income on temporary water and sanitation access. This expense traps them in a cycle of poverty». In an idea first presented by CEO and co-founder of Water.org, Gary White, «microfinance institutions started lending money for water connections and toilets, establishing WaterCredit as a viable solution for millions in need of safe water and sanitation». Working with co-founder Matt Damon, White soon realized that demand for this type of loan was even higher than expected. To the point that lenders didn’t have enough money to cover it. No problem will remain unsolved. White and Damon went on «to create another organization called WaterEquity. The first ever impact investment manager dedicated to solving the global water crisis». Similarly to FitzGerald and Kearney’s approach, they also «attract philanthropic funds to unlock capital that helps deliver local solutions». 

Aquaporin  

Water tech company delivering innovative technology built on nature’s own water filtration. Reusing nature’s way of filtrating water in a more industrial context. Drawing on the discovery of aquaporin protein by Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Agre in 2003, is what drove the creation of Aquaporin in 2005.

Water.org 

Founded in 2009 by merging Gary White’s WaterPartners International and Matt Demon’s H20 Africa. They offer affordable loans to people who need to find a way to afford the simplest water facilities, like a tap or a toilet. In 20 years, they reached around 1,000,000 people. In the last ten years, have added over 40 million people using affordable household level lending.

JUST water 

Founded in 2015 by Drew FitzGerald and Jaden Smith. They produce water bottled in sustainable, plant-based packaging, while sourcing responsibly and improving communities’ social conditions.

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
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for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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