Access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene are the most basic human needs for health and well-being. Still, according to the United Nations, water use has grown to more than twice the rate of population increase over the last century. In the last 300 years, more than 85% of the planet's wetlands have been lost, mainly through drainage and land conversion, and many of the remaining wetland areas have been degraded.
By 2020, two billion people were living without safely managed drinking water services, including 1.2 billion humans who lack even a basic level of service. For at least 3 billion people, the water quality they depend on is unknown due to a lack of monitoring.
By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas affected by water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-stressed regions due to water use, growth, and climate change. Today, 4.2 billion people still face difficulties accessing even the most basic services daily.
But the outlook looks worse by 2030, as water demand is increasing due to rapid population growth, urbanization, and growing water needs in agriculture, industry, and the energy sectors. At the current rate of progress, by that year, 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion will lack safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion people will lack basic hand hygiene facilities.
The sixth UN Sustainable Development Goal is about the challenge to conserve, manage and effectively distribute the water we have to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, on the basis that water, sanitation, and hygiene are human rights.
By managing water sustainably, we can better manage food and energy production, contribute to decent work, preserve water ecosystems and biodiversity, and take action against climate change. But water management also represents an opportunity to invest in and impact the economies of countries and regions.
It is estimated that $260 billion are lost worldwide yearly due to a lack of basic water and sanitation. The time spent collecting water represents billions of dollars in lost economic opportunities. There are 771 million people in the world who, in the face of scarcity, spend hours, several times a day, waiting in long lines at community water kiosks or walking to distant sources such as rivers and ponds to find it. This is time wasted and income foregone.
Universal access to water and basic sanitation would yield $18.5 billion in economic benefits each year from averted deaths alone. Every dollar invested in water and sanitation provides an economic return of $4 through reduced health costs, increased productivity, and reduced premature deaths.
Not Just Scarcity
The world's population has already reached 8 billion people, and the United Nations predicts that it will peak at 10.4 billion people in the 2080s and remain at that level until 2100.
Population growth puts increased pressure on nature as people compete with wildlife for water, food, and space. This adds to the water damage, both fresh and oceanic, due to the effects of pollution generated by humankind itself.
Every year, more than 8 million tons of waste (microplastics) reach the oceans, impacting the environment, and can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. Primary microplastics are tiny particles, and microfibers shed from commercial products such as cosmetics, clothing, other textiles, and fishing nets. In contrast, secondary microplastics are particles resulting from decomposing larger plastic items such as water bottles. Drinking water, oceans, freshwater, and water in the polar region are some places where high amounts of these toxic particles have been found.
According to research conducted in 2017, of 159 samples collected from 14 countries, 83% were found to contain plastic particles. Another research conducted in 2021 estimated that there were 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world's upper oceans, with a combined weight of 82,000 to 578,000 tons, which is equivalent to about 30 billion 500-milliliter plastic water bottles.
Microplastic contamination has also been detected in natural freshwater systems such as wetlands, lakes, and rivers worldwide, including Lake Superior in North America, Swiss lakes in Europe, and Lake Taihu in China, putting organisms in these systems at risk. This year's study found that microplastics accumulate, especially at the river's source or stream. In this area, contaminants tend to reside the longest due to the relatively low velocity of water flow there.
Another 2015 study in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (midway between Hawaii and California) suggests about 16 times more waste floating there than previously thought. The mass of debris covers 1.6 million square kilometers and is considered the largest accumulation zone of ocean plastics on Earth.
In 2014, Cody Friesesn, a young technology entrepreneur and materials scientist, developed at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, a solar panel called Source. From the air, it produces safe, great-tasting drinking water. He then created the venture Source Global the following year to bring clean water where it is needed most.
His hydro panels, which cost about $2,000 each, have been installed in more than 50 countries in 450 projects. The company has raised $150 million from investors such as Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, BlackRock Duke Energy, and the Lightsmith Group. "Now we can make perfect water, in your home, in your school, in your community, in a way that's bringing it into the 21st century," Friesen says.
Other efforts to bring drinking water from desalinating water from the oceans that hold more than 96% of the planet's water have also been invested in. Fernando Cortabitarte, director of O&M Desalination at ACCIONA, a Spanish company that promotes and manages infrastructure and renewable energy (water, concessions, construction, and services), says, "It is technologically possible to convert seawater into drinking water. And in fact, we are already doing it.
His technology is reverse osmosis, which applies pressure to a volume of seawater with a high amount of salt to filter it through a semipermeable membrane that allows the water to pass through, but not the salts. The cost of desalinating 1,000 liters of water is similar to that of a 5-liter container of mineral water, with an energy consumption no greater than that of maintaining an air conditioner.
In Chile, water generated at Copiapó, a desalination plant located in the Atacama Desert, supplies drinking water to 30,000 people and the region's agricultural and mining industries.
Some global manufacturers of water treatment products are exploring next-generation water filtration technologies, such as carbon nanotubes or advanced membrane systems.
Water Technology, a manufacturer of water treatment products, lists five of the latest water purification technologies that will likely serve as alternatives to existing water purification processes: Nanotechnology (highly efficient and cost-effective modular processes); Acoustic Nanotubes, which use acoustics instead of pressure to direct water through nanotubes that block contaminating molecules; Photocatalysis, which with ultraviolet rays removes toxic substances from water; Aquaporins, which, through biomimetic membranes allows water molecules to pass through and blocks all other compounds; and variable automatic filtration technology, which employs continuously cleaned downstream bed filters that are embedded in a variable array.
Investment in Purification
With 3.575 million people dying each year from water-related diseases, the situation takes on epic proportions. Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with diseases related to limited access to clean water, poor hygiene, and sanitation.
We live in a time when many life-changing innovations have saved and facilitated the lives of many. There is a need to invest in new technologies developed by visionary ventures that support, especially the least favored countries.
Some steps have already been taken, such as the following:
Lifestraws - Smart straws that purify water from potential pathogens such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea before they reach the lips. They are considered an icon of humanitarian product design, featuring products, architecture, and technology that positively impact disadvantaged demographics worldwide.
Ceramic water filters - Designed, manufactured, and distributed by Cambodian citizens, these filters are made of fired clay. The tiny pores of the ceramic material are small enough to remove or trap virtually all bacteria and protozoa. The design uses gravity to facilitate the filtration process, resulting in a flow rate of 1 to 3 liters per hour. They were recognized in 2002 with the International Water Association's Grand Prize for Project Innovation.
Thanks to this device, reports and diagnoses of diarrhea in Cambodia have decreased by 50% since its active use in 2002.
The pure water bottle. - This alternative solution can filter dirty water in two minutes using a combination of 4-micron water filters and a string ultraviolet light system. Thanks to this, the device removes up to 99.9% of impurities from any water source and could be a valuable asset for people in developing countries.
As for microplastic pollution, an innovative invention called "Robot Fish" is a solution. It is designed to self-propel, swim and latch onto free-floating microplastics. It was developed by Ocean Cleanup, a non-governmental organization based in the Netherlands, which seeks to develop advanced technologies to help eliminate plastics from the world's oceans.
Water as a Business
Water is not only pollution or potability, it is an opportunity to generate electricity and to invest for profit. Everything that has been achieved so far in favor of achieving the UN's sixth sustainable development goal has not only been due to social responsibility; all development requires investment and this, in turn, must generate some profit.
And the investment is not to be feared. Solutions to the global water crisis cost far less than you might think. Research by the World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that solving these problems would cost just 1% of global GDP, or around 29 US cents per person per day, by 2030. An investment that would be more than recouped: every dollar spent on improving access to water and sanitation would be worth an average of $6.80, and losses of between 2 and 10% of global GDP would be avoided by 2050.
A recent World Bank study concludes that water will undoubtedly be the business of the 21st century, equivalent to what fuels have been for the present. Osvaldo Canziani, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said water will become a trillion-dollar business. BNP Paribas, in its report "Investing in water: a source of solid growth," states that, albeit slowly, water is becoming a focus of interest: "It offers a surprisingly diverse and robust set of opportunities, with risk characteristics similar to stock markets. The segment spans the entire global economy in terms of markets, sectors, and regions and offers attractive opportunities across both defensive and cyclical businesses.
Water is indeed the heritage of humanity, but its management has become a problem of great proportions that requires innovative alternatives. This is where we can make inroads into the solution and the water business. Leaving governments responsible for finding solutions on their own is illusory and far-fetched. The solutions have to come from private enterprises, from entrepreneurs who can contribute their ideas, talent, and creativity to propose such solutions. Along the way, as Canziani rightly says, this represents a multi-million dollar business opportunity.
Not everything has been said about the solution to water problems, and that is precisely where the area of opportunity lies: finding and implementing solutions to problems that will become more critical every day. At a conference of the Spanish Network on Sustainable Development, focused on the sixth of the Sustainable Development Goals, the president of the Spanish Group for Green Growth, Valentín Alfaya, assured that "Opportunities can only be seized if we consider public-private collaboration "essential": only then will it be possible to make the sixth sustainable development goal a lode for business." He stated that there is also a "great opportunity for innovation," but not only technological: also related to a "more systemic vision of the water cycle."
Michael Burry, one of the first investors to recognize the subprime mortgage crisis, has been investing for some time now in everything to do with exploiting water, which, he says, "is something we all take for granted that there will be plenty of, but it's not guaranteed. Water will be a political asset.
What can be invested in that can mean business? Some things have already been done, but they can be improved with creative innovation and the use of artificial intelligence, for example, more efficient well drilling systems; improved rainwater harvesting systems; technified irrigation systems for plantations; mechanisms to reduce water pollution; drinking water supply systems for large cities, agriculture and industry; water supply for hospitals, and so on.
In recent years, water management for human consumption has become a strategic business that has become increasingly important in the private sector, to the detriment of the public sector.
Large investment funds have long been aware of the high potential represented by the business of purification, maintenance, and supply of drinking water to the population. The Swiss firm Pictet was a pioneer in betting on this market when it created the Pictet Water fund in 2000, which, ten years after its creation, already had assets of more than 2,415 million dollars, according to Global Water Intelligence.
But covid-19 also highlighted the urgent need to ensure everyone has access to adequate hand hygiene. As Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, says, there is no doubt that investments in water, sanitation, and hygiene must be a global priority if Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to be achieved. More resilient health systems are to be created.
Water scarcity is an ongoing problem for developing countries. But it will become, sooner than many imagine, a problem for the wealthiest countries as well; it is even said that the next great world war will be over water. Solving the problem implies, first of all, understanding it. So far, we know the primary needs in this area now and for the next 50 years.
But there are still doubts to be clarified, for example: What would happen if the world were to run out of water; what could be the consequences of not conserving water; what should be the main reasons for water conservation worldwide; what other threats besides pollution and global warming could water conservation face?
Water, that supply that seems so cheap and to which we are accustomed to having easy access, is now on a par with such valuable commodities as oil or gold. An important difference between one and the other, humans can live without gold or oil. But not without water.
So, the need to solve a serious global problem will come to the biggest businesses, and if you want to be part of it, you are at the right time to start.
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