When innovation meets water scarcity challenges:
A technological and financial perspective for a better water future.
Traditional water resources management strategies have focused mainly on building additional infrastructure and retrofitting existing ones. The emergence of innovative technologies and services will be game-changers for addressing water scarcity challenges, and will be a cost-effective way to manage water resources in the future.
Monegros semi-Desert, Spain. Source: Smoobs.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), one-third of European countries have relatively low availability of water, less than 5,000 m3 of water per head per year, which equals 14 litres/day when we know that the average consumption is around 100 to 140 l/day. Moreover, in Europe, even countries like Belgium, the UK, and Germany, which are considered as water-healthy are now experiencing water scarcity. The EEA claims that “water scarcity occurs where there are insufficient water resources to satisfy long-term average requirements. It refers to long-term water imbalances, combining low water availability with a level of water demand exceeding the supply capacity of the natural system”. Water scarcity is exacerbated by well-known additional factors such as the constant population growth, rising demand for water, particularly in industry and relentless urbanization.
Industry is expected to use 4% more water each year in the future, according to ING Bank. Water is starting to be seen as a potential performance differentiator for industries and has been integrated in balance sheets for business risks and asset management. The Ford Motor Company, for instance, recycles 100% of its industrial wastewater in India to offset freshwater consumption. The Coca Cola Company has set a similar objective to: “By 2020, safely return to communities and nature an amount of water equal to what we use in our finished beverages”.
Sustainable water resources management is an obvious response to addressing water scarcity. The implementation of innovative technologies and services that will contribute to optimize both the available water resources and the use of water can be considered as equally important now to address water scarcity challenges.
The smart water market is estimated to reach between $15-20 billion by 2020.
Smart Water Innovations
The emergence of the Internet of Things and more generally of smart technologies has allowed the water sector to address long-standing challenges that could worsen water scarcity impacts. Many publications have already presented the benefits and opportunities of introducing artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning and augmented reality (AR) to the water sector. As further illustrations of this phenomenon, here are some examples of successful start-ups:
- UTILIS, an Israeli start-up, detects urban water leaks through satellite images. It use technology that was invented to detect water on other planets. The technology looks for water and not noise, as other technologies do. It means that leak management can be prioritized and non-revenue water addressed. UTILIS reports that 60-70% of non-revenue water is due to physical losses. The business model is based on “Data as a Service”.
- Improving water efficiency is not just about technology; it is equally critical to engage with customers to change behaviours. ADVIZZO, a UK-based start-up launched in 2015, has designed a platform that allows for engaging with water end-users and to help utilities understand their consumer base while improving operational management. The technology combines machine learning and behavioural science to identify consumer use patterns, todeliver predictive analytics of water demand to plan better for future water supplies strategy, and to engage with consumers in a more targeted and personalized way. The first results indicate that there is a 2-3% reduction in water use after a six-month period of implementing the solution, and the e-marketing conversion rate is two to three times faster than with traditional programmes.
- Innovative technologies and services have entered the agricultural sector: AgTech start-ups, like CERES IMAGING, ARABLE, PRECISIONHAWK, SENCROP and TERRAVION, have developed technologies and services that range from smart sensors, drones for in-field monitoring, aerial imagery and predictive analytics. In France, WEENAT’s solution allows farmers to optimize irrigation needs by adapting water delivery according to the crop’s needs and the soil water storage capacity. WEENAT has succeeded in addressing a major barrier to market entry in agriculture, regarding the return on investment time which appears could be as fast as one year.
Less digital but with the same purpose of resource efficiency, MOASIS, in the US, manufactures a soil additive that allows growers to optimize water use in agricultural soil. This hydrophilic polymer can hold 250 times its weight in water and is used as a soil amendment or seed coating. The product holds excess water near the seeds or roots and releases it as the soil dries out, resulting in less plant stress and significantly higher crop yields, while reducing water needs. Results indicate improved crop yields by 6-15%, with up to 25% less irrigation.
Tabernas semi-Desert, Spain. Source: Amjad Sheikh.
The United Nations expects 14% of the global population to receive water from desalination by 2025.
Desalination Provides Water
Innovative desalination technologies are ready to topple incumbent technologies. They will make non-conventional resources more attractive and increase access to water. Thanks to technological developments, desalination has been a response to the global water deficit. In 2016, the International Desalination Association (IDA) estimated that there were around 20,000 desalination plants in 150 countries to supply 300 million people. In countries such as Australia, desalination plants can provide up to 50% of drinking water.
From an economic point of view, desalination has been an expensive option – the water cost can reach up to $5/m3. A new generation of membranes are being developed to reduce operational and capital costs by up to 15%, for example, a reverse osmosis system. ANFIRO, CLEAN MEMBRANES, DESALITECH are examples of start-ups that are active in this field. An early-stage Israeli start-up, HYDROP, has developed a “peptoid-based material” that can be embedded in the reverse osmosis membrane, without amending its structure. This material is claimed to reduce up to 30% of the energy required when using reverse osmosis processes. New technologies also target high levels of recovery for brine management (up to 98%) and reuse of water.
The development of renewable energy has been another opportunity to improve access to water. Autonomous solar seawater solutions are being developed, albeit still using membranes. Innovation in this area has mainly been directed at reducing the overall costs of desalinated water and providing an off-grid solution, so that it can stand as one of the relevant responses to water shortages in remote areas, on islands there is tremendous potential.
Port Stanvac Desalination Plant, Australia. Source: Vmenkov.
Emerging technologies might make desalination even more attractive. Although these are still at an R&D phase, alternatives to existing membranes are being studied. A UK-based research team succeeded in “creating a graphene-based filter capable of removing salt from seawater” and announced that they would now test them against existing membranes, and assess the scalability. Similarly, engineers at the University of Illinois in the U.S. have been making progress in developing a saltwater desalination process that could be cheaper than conventional reverse osmosis membranes. The first results indicate that the technology could work for brackish waters, with low salinity. The next steps will focus on high-saline seawater.
Water scarcity challenges cannot be addressed without mentioning air-to-water technologies. A year ago, as Venture Adviser to Aster Capital, a French VC Fund, I produced a poster listing a few start-ups that have developed or are developing technologies to produce water out of air which is a billion-dollar market. An operational start-up WATERGEN in Israel seems to be fully successful in marketing its technologies. Two of the outstanding barriers are the energy costs, and relatedly the cost of the produced water. WATERGEN reckons that 10,000 of their devices could supply 25 million people. The UK-based start-up REQUENCH is designing a technology that is based on a desiccant technology using the principle that salt absorbs water. This drastically reduces the energy requirements making solar photovoltaic power practical with over 25% at low humidity. Water can be produced at a relative humidity as low as 15%.
Innovation in the water sector should not be considered just a buzz word; it can be a tangible solution to address water scarcity challenges the world is facing. Economically, the technologies aim at reducing CAPEX and OPEX, which should be an additional incentive for greater market uptake. Financially, innovative technologies and services should be envisaged as investments for a sustainable water resources future.