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Credit: World Meteorological Organzation

Climate Change

Lack Of Access To Fresh Water Is Increasing. Can Hydropanels Help?

Billions of people lack access to fresh water, but there are solutions available.

Nearly half the world’s population lacks consistent access to fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and basic sanitation, according to the latest report from the World Meteorological Organization. “Increasing temperatures are resulting in global and regional precipitation changes, leading to shifts in rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons with a major impact on food security and human health and well-being,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

“This past year has seen a continuation of extreme, water-related events. Across Asia, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and India. Millions of people were displaced, and hundreds were killed. But it is not just in the developing world that flooding has led to major disruption. Catastrophic flooding in Europe led to hundreds of deaths and widespread damage,” he said.

“Lack of water continues to be a major cause of concern for many nations, especially in Africa. More than two billion people live in water-stressed countries and suffer lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation,” he told the official high-level launch event. We need to wake up to the looming water crisis,” Taalas says. Humans can live about 30 seconds without oxygen and 30 days without food, but only 3 days without water.

In the past 20 years, terrestrial water storage — the sum of all water on the land surface and in the subsurface including soil moisture, snow and ice — has dropped at a rate of 1 cm per year. The biggest losses are occurring in Antarctica and Greenland, but many highly populated lower latitude locations are experiencing significant water losses in areas that are traditionally providing water supply with major ramifications for water security. The situation is made worse by the fact that only 0.5% of water on Earth is useable and available freshwater.

A WMO assessment of 101 countries for which data is available found that:

  • There is inadequate interaction among climate services providers and information users in 43% of WMO Members
  • Data is not collected for basic hydrological variables in approximately 40% of them
  • Hydrological data is not made available in 67% of them
  • End-to-end riverine flood forecasting and warning systems are absent or inadequate in 34% of those who provided data
  • End-to-end drought forecasting and warning systems are lacking or inadequate in 54% of them.

Alterations in the Earth’s climate are bringing more rain to some areas, but less rain to others. Too much or too little rain can have a devastating impact on crops. Too much and they rot in the fields. Too little and they wither and die.

One aspect of global warming is a narrowing of the temperature difference between colder areas and warmer areas. That difference is the engine that drives ocean and atmospheric currents, which in turn impact local weather patterns. Those weather patterns, in turn, determine what parts of the world are habitable.

The lack of water to irrigate crops leads to starvation, which leads to mass migrations. Those movements of large numbers of people historically have led to conflict and war. We should not underestimate the broader consequences associated with a lack of fresh water.

To address the issue, the WMO suggests that many countries could do a better job of collecting and sharing data about their water resources and the world community needs to do a better job of planning for diminished fresh water supplies. It urges nations and organizations to join the Water and Climate Coalition, which has been organized by the WMO in response to the need for integrated policy developments and improved practical solutions. The coalition provides countries with support to improve assessment of water resources as well as forecasting and outlook services for water.

For more on the WMO water report, please take a few moments to watch this informative video:

Water From The Air

Source, a startup company formerly known as Zero Mass Water, says it has a partial solution to the water crisis. It has developed panels that remove moisture from the air and turns it into fresh water using a technology called atmospheric water generation, or AWG. It’s not a new technology, but one which previously required large amounts of energy and high humidity levels. Companies like Source say they have solved those challenges and created a technology powered by renewable energy that works even in arid climates, according to a report by The Guardian.

Source was founded by Cody Friesen, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University who says he became passionate about water scarcity during trips to Indonesia and Central America, which had “10 feet of rainfall” but “nothing to drink.” He invented the hydropanels with the hope of creating “a world where no women and girls ever fetched water ever again” and “there were no plastic water bottles floating around.” Part of his program is storing the water produced in plastic-free bottles.

Source hydropanel. Image credit: Source

The Earth’s atmosphere holds six times as much water as all the world’s rivers. That is a lot of water! The hydropanels use fans to draw air in. The water vapor is then converted into a liquid, filtered, and mineralized. The panel’s only energy source is sunlight, and it can work in a wide variety of locations, Friesen says, including those with low humidity, high levels of pollution, and areas that are entirely off grid.

Source sells its hydropanels for use in hotels, resorts, restaurants, stores, and homes, and water farms in Arizona, Dubai, and Australia. Recently, it contracted with a Saudi Arabian company to supply 2 million plastic-free water bottles a year for a new eco-resort. The company has also installed panels in schools, villages and hospitals in countries including India, the Philippines, and Kenya, in partnership with NGOs, development banks, and local governments.

In Colombia, the company installed panels in Bahía Hondita, a remote community of Wayuu indigenous people on the tip of the Guajira peninsula, an arid area that has been devastated by drought. Many Wayuu people must walk hours to find a source of potable water. The company set up 149 panels last year to supply drinking water to the nearly 500 people who live there.

Production data is continuously sent back to the company in Arizona. The Wayuu panels produce 3.2 liters (0.8 gallons) a day on average. Other panels located on the the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico produce between 2 and 4 liters a day, depending on where they are located on the reservation.

Source has raised more than $100 million from investors such as BlackRock and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’s climate fund. Last month, the company received $7 million from Chamath Palihapitiya, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists, to install hydropanels in drought-stricken parts of California.

Not Everyone Is Impressed

Some in the water industry have criticized Source because they say the panels cost too much and produce too little water. A 2-panel array costs up to $6,500 including installation. Each panel weighs 340 pounds and requires 30 square feet of space. Although a panel can in theory produce five liters of water a day, the company says that clouds or low humidity can reduce output to less than 2 liters a day. The panels stop working altogether in freezing weather.

The “fundamental problem” with the hydropanel is that it “makes very, very little water for the size and price,” Christopher Gasson of Global Water Intelligence, a market intelligence firm, tells The Guardian. According to the UN, he says, a person needs about 50 liters of water a day to meet basic needs for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. It would take 17 hydropanels just to meet the needs for one person.

The hydropanels would “not under any circumstances” be a solution to water scarcity, he says. Isolated communities like the Wayuu would be better off collecting rainwater and drinking it, he said. The water crisis is really a “challenge of public infrastructure finance” that can be addressed with improvements to municipal water supplies, water filtration units, and water kiosks, Gasson claims.

Other analysts echoed this skepticism. Source is “way, way, way overvalued,” said Rhys Owens of BlueTech Research, another market intelligence company, adding that AWG might be viable where “you literally, absolutely have no other source of water.” (Note to Rhys Owens: billions of people have no other source of water at least for part of the year.) A research paper published in 2021 concluded that AWG could be an “attractive substitute” for bottled water but “does not provide economically viable alternatives for potable tap water.”

Source is “a pure disruptor,” Friesen says, and “there will always be naysayers.” He expects productivity to rise and costs to fall quickly. Each panel’s raw materials cost $200, he said, and the current retail price reflects the challenges of small-scale production — about 1,000 panels a month. Friesen compared the hydropanels to other renewable technologies, such as solar panels or lithium-ion batteries, which were also criticized for being too costly or ineffective but have since seen costs plunge.

He makes a very good point. Prices for solar-powered devices have dropped more than 90% since Jimmy Carter put solar water heating panels on the White House. He also says infrastructure improvements will benefit large metropolitan areas, but have no role to play in isolated areas where water “is hard to move around.” Rainwater collection is “not a reliable or resilient solution,” he says, because it relies on predictable rainfall, “which is less and less common due to climate change.” See the first part of this article for more on that topic.

AWG is “not going to be an enormous game changer,” says Rhys Owen, unless there is a substantial increase in the amount of water that can be collected using hydropanels. Consider that the efficiency of solar panels in 1976 was around 2.4%. Who’s to say that Friesen’s dream won’t become more realistic in the future? If you have ever walked 10 miles to get fresh water for your family, you might not be so smug because the technology hasn’t reached its full potential yet.

People who carry water all day every day don’t have time to raise children, tend farms, or earn a living. Some of Friesen’s critics need to expand their focus and recognize the secondary benefits of having a source of clean water — no matter how small — close at hand. For some, it can be the difference between just staying alive and thriving. What price tag do we put on that?

 

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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