Water Matters

Monday, December 17, 2018

Jordi Albacete – Environmental Journalist

“Every drop is precious”. This was the slogan under which the Nobel Week Dialogue Water Matters took place last 9 December in Stockholm. The Nobel organisation aimed to focus on  actions to solve global problems affecting water. Nobel Laureates attended this event together with scientists, experts, key opinion leaders, policy makers and entrepreneurs.

Some action led questions were raised during the debates and parallel sessions, such as:  which is the role of innovation for water scarcity?; how important is it to address energy alternative sources to ensure long lasting solutions for water crisis? or, why is working with nature to preserve the water cycle important?

Speakers included Diva Amon who has participated in several deep-sea expeditions around the world and Maude Barlow who led the campaign to have water recognised as a human right by the UN. Also taking part in the dialogue was Julian Dowdeswell, a glaciologist, working on the form and flow of glaciers and ice caps and their response to climate change and Gary White, dedicated to empowering people in the developing world to gain access to safe water and sanitation.

Ingenious Solutions on Display

Petra Wadström, inventor and founder of Solvatten, was one of the 30 panellists. Petra focused on key impacts of energy consumption to treat and to heat water for hygiene and domestic use in impoverished countries. Her findings are based on her extensive experience and knowledge in helping people living off grid in poor countries to have access to clean and hot water.  More than 300,000 people in 20 different countries and refugee camps have benefited from the Solvatten jerry cans. Petra has been witnessing their impact worldwide in some of the most deprived rural and urban areas of the world. 

Petra Wadström, inventor and  founder of Solvatten at the Nobel Week Dialogue, Water Matters. Photograph by Mari Gahm.

Other ingenious inventors such as the Indian engineer Sonam Wangchuk took part in the dialogue. Wangchuk presented the Ice Stupa Project. Wangchuk builds seasonal artificial glaciers  by producing ice and snow in winter.  when these structures melt water is available to farmers when they most need it it, at the beginning of the agricultural season in early spring. 

The Link of Energy and Water

What to do when one in nine people lack access to improved water and nearly one billion people worldwide, in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency, do not have access to the electricity grid?  

Lack of alternative energy sources and financial barriers are some of the key obstacles to realise the Sixth Sustainable Development Goal, Clean water and sanitation for all, (UN SDG# 6) . 

Gary White is CEO and co-founder of water.org and WaterEquity, which are dedicated to empowering people in the developing world gain access to safe water and sanitation. 

White participated in the panel discussion ‘Don’t Talk, Act’, focused on activism. He discussed with panellists Jan Eliasson, Ambassador and Chair of the Governing Board, SIPRI and Beatrice Fihn 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign

Evidence from water.org and WaterEquity shows that most people who don’t have access to clean water and electricity are spending a high part of their incomes to buy water for drinking and energy. “In India people are paying 125% of interests on loans to build their own toilets and many households spend up to 25% of their income to buy water from water vendors, on a regular basis”, says Gary White. He met Petra Wadström. They discussed how a partnership could help more families in impoverished countries have clean and hot water at home. 

Great Minds on Water Challenges 

Drilling holes, pumping water and treating it has an energy cost. The question lies in how to find energy sources to create infrastructure for sanitation and running water. Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2011, Dan Shechtman who teaches technological entrepreneurialships at universities, encouraged entrepreneurs to innovate energy solutions for off grid households where infrastructure is poor. He showed the inspiring example of a young Israeli woman who  brought solar panels to Africa to pump water from wells. 

Shechtman received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, a crystal with five-fold symmetry that was thought to be impossible. Today Shechtman’s research interests are focused on developing, studying and understanding the structure, mechanical properties and bio-corrosion of new magnesium alloys.

The Nobel laureate is a firm believer in the possibilities of desalinisation.  If more action is put into desalinisation international conflicts around water could be avoided. Nevertheless, desalinisation is still a highly energy consuming process, which requires energy solutions. 

Water is facing global challenges. Shechtman believes that the time has come to bring innovation and find solutions for water production. “Our modern societies are based on how we took the leap from being hunter gatherers to farmers. This  happened more than ten thousand years ago. Up to date, we have just gathered water. We never replaced it. Now we have to master how to produce it. Desalination is one of the solutions. This would be the second revolution in our history but water pollution is still a challenge. By sharing knowledge and resources we can ensure water security and avoid international conflicts in the future”, Shechtman says.

Water Footprint

Conservation of water and how to work with its cycle is one of the leading interests for scientists, policymakers and businesses. Sandra Postel is an author and founding director of the Global Water Policy Project. She works to bridge science, policy and practice to build a more water-secure world. She has appeared in various media productions including the BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’, Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The 11th Hour’, and the National Geographic Channel’s ‘Breakthrough’ series. 

Sandra Postel speaking with attendees at the GreenBiz 17 Forum at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona. Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

Postel believes that Eco engineering is a current pathway that needs further development. She suggested that scientists, businesses and policymakers could learn from current urban planning pilots in China to better understand how to work with the water cycle. Shangai, known as one of the 16 ‘Chinese sponge cities’, is replacing its concrete pavements with wetlands, and building green rooftops and rain gardens to absorb the stormwater in the land, making this water usable for the city. 

Apps to Raise Awareness on Water Footprint

Digital arts such as virtual reality and video games can help the public to be aware with their water footprint. The performance lecture led by artist Marina Abramovic was one of the highlights of the Water Matters event. She presented the launch of a new app called Rising, letting users make active choices to take better care of the environment with daily actions.

The app allows viewers to see their daily water and energy footprint and view Abramović in Augmented Reality. She  beckons from within a glass tank that is slowly filling with water from her waist to her neck. Abramović urges viewers to reconsider their impact on the world around them, asking them to choose whether or not to save her from drowning by pledging to support the environment, which lowers the water in the tank.

Rise is available for free on Google Play and App Store. Other free apps such as Water Footprint help to calculate our impact on water consumption. 

For the Greatest Benefit of Humankind

Sweden is a world-known place for innovation. Some Swedish innovators are finding energy solutions to save water or trees by using sunlight or  algae. 

Sunlight makes the  water safe and hot. This is what the Solvatten jerry can does. It uses the power of sunlight and the UV radiation to breakdown the DNA chains of microorganisms in unsafe water.  

Petra Wadström, inventor and founder of Solvatten, explained the problems  resulting  of energy consumption to produce safe and hot water in impoverished countries. “Energy sources alternatives are key to ensure a sustainable livelihood for families living off grid”, she said. Petra believes that access to safe water for drinking and hot water  for hygiene as well as clean energy are issues that need to be addressed together. Otherwise the problem won’t be solved.

Algae has a great potential as an energy source. This is what another Swedish woman entrepreneur, Sofie Allert, highlighted in a panel discussion. Allert is the co-founder and CEO of Swedish Algae Factory. Allert founded Swedish Algae Factory to make use of a natural resource that can create sustainable value for society – algae. Swedish Algae Factory have developed a circular economic business model around a group of algae called diatoms. The properties of the diatom are useful in several industries. This material can replace harmful or less efficient chemical substances.  

Producing Water Without Energy

Gravity is another option to save energy in high mountains such as the Himalayas. Sonam Wangchuk diverts water, in the Indian Himalayas, from upstreams above 3,500 metres to lower altitudes. The water is kept frozen through during the winter, near the villages. It melts in early spring when farmers most needed for sowing their crops. 

Sonam Wangchuk with students from SECMOL on an Ice Stupa building site. Photograph by Ice Stupa Project. 

Wangchuk has won many awards worldwide for his invention, which saves and makes water accesible without use of energy. He named his invention the Ice Stupa project for the resemblance of these seasonal artificial glaciers to the stupas Buddhist monuments. These are ubiquitous to the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh in India.  Wangchuk met with Petra Wadstrom. The Ladakhi engineer would like to bring Solvatten to Ladakh where Solvatten is already present since 2012, in partnership with World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

Solvatten jerry cans introduced to Ladakhi farmers, in 2012 in India. World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) is a current partner for this project. Photograph by Oliwer Wadström.

Coordinating Solutions

Solvatten congratulates Petra Wadström on this remarkable honour in recognition of her stunning work in creating Solvatten. Petra is enormously grateful for this recognition and the impecable level of organisation of the Nobel Week Dialogue. “Water is an urgent global issue that requires action. Forums such as Water Matters in the Nobel  Week Dialogue are necessary to create partnerships and a proper understanding of such a complex issue. Water global challenges require further discussions and coordinated actions”, Petra says.