When seen from space, the earth is a blue gem, a water planet. But when it comes to the amount of its water that humans can actually drink—a mere one percent of the total—it is an increasingly thirsty planet.

And even that scant amount of water needs to be made safe to drink. Worldwide, nearly 800 million people—two and a half times the population of the United States—lack access to clean drinking water. In the majority of countries, existing water supplies are insufficient to meet urban, industrial, agricultural, and environmental needs. The UN World Water Development Report predicts that if our water needs continue at its present rate, the world’s demand for water will exceed its supply by 40 percent in 2030.

By then, over one billion people will be suffering from water scarcity. Food shortages and declines in living standards will be unavoidable for many countries. Next to climate change, the water crisis is one of the most urgent priorities of our time. But unlike the much thornier and politicized issue of reducing carbon emissions, providing the world with enough water means efficiently managing the water that we already have. Fortunately, pioneering technologies, based on simple and affordable innovations, have already demonstrated their potential for providing millions of people with the water that they need.

For example, in the 1990s, water contaminated with viruses and bacteria such as cholera and dysentery killed tens of thousands of people in India. Then came a breakthrough in water disinfection: UV Waterworks, a low-cost device that uses ultraviolet light to sanitize water. Introduced in 1995 by Ashok Gadgil, director of the Energy and Environmental Technologies division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UV Waterworks now helps provide clean water to over four million people a day across Bangladesh, Ghana, India, and the Philippines.

Lake Powell on the Colorado River—which provides water for Nevada, Arizona and California—is seen in a combination of NASA satellite images taken in 1991 (L) and 2015 (R). A severe drought in recent years, combined with withdrawals that many believe are not sustainable, has reduced its levels to only about 42 percent of its capacity.
NASA Handout / Reuters

Although securing access to clean drinking water is critical for billions of people, agriculture is by far the largest consumer of water, using up to 80 percent of the world’s total. In many regions, particularly South Asia, the lack of water for agriculture is a cause of rural poverty and malnutrition.

In India, agriculture and its related sectors account for half of the country’s workforce and 13.7 percent of GDP. Around 64 percent of cultivated land is dependent on irregular monsoons, which means that millions of smallholder farmers are critically dependent on unreliable sources of water to irrigate their crops. The Indian NGO International Development Enterprises (IDEI) has supplied over 870,000 smallholder farmers with the foot-operated KB treadle pump, an affordable and simple technology that allows farmers to tap previously inaccessible water. Farmers are able to capture anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of the water that is available from surface-level sources such as ponds and wells. That, in turn, has led to a 30 to 70 percent increase in crop yields.

Simple water solutions can also come from rethinking how the private sector and utilities manage water and the way that investors consider water risk in their investment decisions. In the United States, agriculture and industries are responsible for over 90 percent of the country’s water consumption. And about one-quarter of all fresh water consumed annually in the United States is associated with discarded food. Concern over such excessive waste has led one U.S.-based nonprofit organization, Ceres, to lobby for change in the private sector by using unique capital market solutions to influence these industries. It is currently working with water utilities in Colorado, Texas, and Utah to craft a pricing model that will incentivize consumers to conserve water while also ensuring that the drop in usage will not hurt business revenues. Ceres’ partner, the Environmental Finance Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has already developed a free tool that allows utilities to manage pricing risks. For example, the tool might capture data showing the variation in consumption levels within different residential areas. This information helps utility companies price accordingly, and ultimately, more cost-effectively.

Next to climate change, the water crisis is one of the most urgent priorities of our time. But unlike the much thornier and politicized issue of reducing carbon emissions, providing the world with enough water means efficiently managing the water that we already have.

Thanks to the collective impact of these three innovations—UV water cleaning, a simple foot pump, and Ceres’ capital market incentives—over six million people a day can drink clean water who otherwise could not. One could say, of course, that this number is just a drop in the bucket given the number of people who still have no access to it. But these three solutions are eminently scalable if they receive global recognition.

It is with this in mind that these three water pioneers—Gadgil, IDEI, and Ceres—have been recognized with awards, in different categories, from the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize, where I am vice-chair of the jury, for demonstrating commitment and excellence in the pursuit of innovative solutions for the future of energy and sustainable development.

It may seem odd that a prize about energy, managed by Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, should reward projects related to water. There is growing recognition, however, that water is energy intensive, just as energy is water intensive. Almost 15 percent of the world’s global freshwater is used to provide energy. As global energy demands grow, conflicts over water and energy increase. It is critical, therefore, that as nations evaluate their energy options, water access and use are also considered.

These three innovators show that disruptive solutions can be simple, robust, and affordable. But those involved in developing such technologies, as well as the public-private partnerships that sustain them and the policymakers who enable them, will need to continue to be creative and holistic in their quest to find sustainable solutions.

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  • HAN SEUNG-SOO is former Prime Minister of South Korea and Vice-Chair of the Jury for the Zayed Future Energy Prize. He is also the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water and a member of the UN Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation.
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