Water scarcity is an enormous humanitarian issue affecting four billion people globally. Climate change is affecting water supply across the world, but it is in the developing world in particular where there is most concern. Underdeveloped nations often don’t have the capabilities to innovate new technologies to solve the issue to ensure a regular water supply. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that many African countries are facing this problem. Eastern Africa in particular has received regular humanitarian aid from international bodies such as UNICEF and UNHCR. The combination of an arid climate prone to drought with a weak economy exacerbates the problem in this area, with unreliable access to fresh or clean water. 

One solution for Africa has been developed by engineers from the University of Texas at Austin, US, using solar-powered technology to provide clean and usable water. It is believed the innovation could be used in ‘disaster situations, water crisis, or poverty-stricken areas’ in developing and underdeveloped countries.  The technology uses hydrogels or gel-polymer hybrid materials, acting as ‘super sponges’ that can store vast amounts of water. 

The research team began by developing a solar-powered water purification innovation using hydrogels to clear or purify water through solar energy. Then the project was advanced further, by developing combined materials that ‘possess both hygroscopic (water-absorbing) qualities and thermal responsive hydrophilicity (the ability to release water upon heating)’. This innovation could achieve the impossible, by pulling water out of thin air. In practise, moisture will be harvested from the air to produce clean water during sunlight. A sufficient amount of water for an average household can be generated with the sun’s power. The technology is cost-effective and has already caught the attention of the Saharan and East African government. UNICEF in partnership with the WHO are also planning to sponsor the project

In South Africa, Aqua Plastech aims to tackle inefficient water loss and preserve the environment through its high-tech sealant innovations for leaking dams. The Aqua Plastech UberSeal is a water-based general purpose clear waterproofing compound ‘designed for use on a wide variety of substrates’. It is bio-friendly and is applied to the surface of the water. The solution instantly expands and sinks into cracks and leaks, crucially minimising the loss of water. 

People’s excessive use of water, particularly in the developed world, is a major contributing factor towards water scarcity. The UN Environment body has stated a 10-minute shower a day, equates to an average person consuming the equivalent of over 100,000 glasses of drinking water a year. Whilst improvements have been made to agriculture and industry technologies focused on saving and reusing water, there has been a lack of investment around innovations saving water for consumers. Energy-based start-up companies are focusing more now on innovations around the delivery of water to consumers. California-based start-up, Nebia, has developed a shower that uses 65 per cent less water, but is still as effective as a traditional showerhead. An estimated 100 million gallons of water has already been saved by its customers. 

Water scarcity is an issue facing the developed and developing world. Whilst technology can play an integral part in providing solutions to this issue, government support and investment is key to enable innovations to trickle through. 

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