Innovation

How tech is making the world's water safer

WaterStep led an event at IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky to bring innovative thinkers together to address the world's water crisis. Here's how tech is helping solve the problem.

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The WaterStep team shows a group in the Philippines how to use their water purifier.
Image: WaterStep

More people on this earth have access to a smartphone than a toilet. Forty percent of the world's population lives without one. One in ten people — 748 million people — live without clean, safe water.

On Tuesday, September 30, WaterStep, a nonprofit that uses technology and innovation to give people access to clean drinking water, hosted a one-day event connected with IdeaFestival to examine how to make progress on the issue.

Engineers, technologists, conservationists, and community members attended the conference to find out how to innovatively solve the world's water crisis. Here are four key ways they said technology is going to change how we approach these solutions:

1. Hackathons

On November 8 and 9, WaterStep and General Electric will host a hackathon at FirstBuild, GE's microfactory on the University of Louisville's campus. Hack2o will bring together makers, tinkerers, and enthusiasts who want to create innovative solutions to one of the world's biggest problems: access to clean, safe water.

The professional division of the hackathon is open to anyone, and the student division is for students and their faculty advisors. Participants who cannot attend can log in through the website and contribute, sharing their ideas through a roaming makeshift video robot (an iPad mounted on a Segway) in the FirstBuild space. They are encouraging people in developing countries especially to contribute their ideas by participating virtually.

"This is a big global vision. This is really the first step in solving water problems worldwide," said Taylor Dawson of FirstBuild.

According to the Indiegogo campaign, some of the challenges for the hackathon include:

  • Breaking and slowing the WaterBall brake, one of WaterStep's water transportation devices
  • Build a kinetic-powered WaterBall filter
  • Design a bleach maker using the cylindrical casing for WaterStep's M-100 chlorine generator
  • Build a water carrying backpack for a 5 gallon bucket built out of local supplies in the developing world
  • Design a monitor to connect to a hand pump in the developing world that can send a signal to a cell phone when it stops working

2. Simple technologies

WaterStep created the M-100 chlorine generator, which is small enough to fit in a carry-on suitcase and powerful enough to provide thousands of people with clean water. The generator uses salt and a 12-volt car battery to produce chlorine gas. The gas is injected into contaminated water and kills pathogens to produce safe drinking water.

A typical WaterStep project includes installing water filters and purification systems in households, repairing local wells, building rain catchments, teach health and hygiene to the community, and providing WaterBalls to the community. A WaterBall is simply a plastic sphere that holds from 12 to 25 gallons of water. People can push it from the well to their home, instead of carrying it on their heads.

The small innovations can have big impacts. According to WaterStep, every $1 invested in water yields $4 for the local economy.

3. Community level innovations

WaterStep team members traveled to a village in El Dique, Costa Rica and saw that whenever someone used the toilet, which was hung out over the river, their waste went directly into the water. Now, the organization is working on a new project to build safe toilets as well as bring safe water to 400 homes in the village, where water is currently only available about two hours a day.

The Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is trying to become more involved in the community and water charities. MSD is connecting their engineers to engineering students in Costa Rica to come up with a solution that is safe and culturally appropriate. By involving the community — especially engineering students — in the decision, more innovative, sustainable decisions can be made.

"It has to be at the village level. We need everybody on board. It has to be the local government, more people to build toilets, you need funding, national governments to prioritize sanitation," said Rose George, author of The Big Necessity and recognized expert on sanitation projects. "It can be national governments. It can also be that little boy with a $2 toilet."

4. Reframing water conservation

"Water is a uniting force, come to find out," said Patricia Mulroy, who served as the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District for many years. She has long been known as the "water czar" and has worked on some of the most important conservation projects in the Western US.

Being strategic about approaching water conservation is key, Mulroy said. Though we all know water access is critical, most people don't understand the critical situation we're in with this precious resource. We often view it very differently than the electricity we use, our cell phones, or other parts of infrastructure.

"We need to rethink how we use water, whether we live in an area that has an abundant supply or we live where water is scarce," Mulroy said. "We as Americans use more than anybody on the planet. We have it available to us whenever we want it and need it... [so] we end up abusing it."

Here are some roles tech plays in reframing water conservation, highlighted at the conference:

  • Specific, high-tech lenses and GoPro cameras were used to share images and video for oceanographic explorer Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31 to spread the word about the importance of the underwater world.
  • Educating in schools around the world starting at a young age, and putting it into a global context using the internet
  • Building cheap toilets and water purifiers to give developing countries access to clean water and toilets
  • Smartphone apps and smart irrigation systems to monitor and analyze personal water usage in developed nations

Combining technological advancements of water conservation and access with the emotional attachment we have to water was a key theme of the event.

"There's a lot more than tinkering and developing. There's working in these countries and building relationships," said Mark Hogg, founder and CEO of WaterStep.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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