H2Oh! making water do amazing things

Almost a billion people live without easy access to clean water, but it doesn’t have to be this way. As Ben Sillis discovers, water is being put to incredible use to solve many of today’s problems. And technology can bring us hope in the face of water shortages too.

Water: either we’ve got too  much or we’ve got too little. Water scarcity is on the up, yet by 2050, if we see a global temperature increase of three degrees, the United Nations predicts that two billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – will be at risk of flooding. It might sound like a doomsday scenario, but don’t get the tin foil hat out and start digging a fallout shelter just yet. Humans are a clever bunch, and they’re constantly coming up with innovative solutions to their problems – and this includes turning water into a resource that we can use, not just one that we need.

The incredible power of hydropower
Imagine if Africa’s power needs could be met by renewable energy sources. It’s no pipe dream, but the potential has only just begun to be unlocked, and the solution is in the continent’s rivers.

According to the World Energy Council’s Survey of Energy Resources, Africa has a staggering 3910 terrawatt hours per year of gross capability in hydropower – enough power for hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

Hydropower stations, which generate energy from falling water, which then drives turbines, are far from new, but as populations soar they’re becoming more and more popular with governments across Africa.

In May this year the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced plans for the world’s largest hydro-scheme on the Inga Falls, dwarfing even China’s Three Gorges dam. Scheduled to begin construction in 2015, the US$8.5bn project boasts a capacity of a staggering 4800 megawatts; eventually it could provide power for 500 million Africans. And that’s just the start. The Ethiopian government has recently completed work on the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, adding to the eight dams with a seven-figure megawatt output – and more projects are on the way. Those that are already live have proved their worth: the 120-megawatt Djibloho dam now supplies 90 per cent of the electricity in Equatorial Guinea.

It’s not just rivers that are being tapped, either. Tidal power plants, which rely on the predictable flow of waves are operational across the world, from Canada to South Korea. Though there are none in Africa yet, the potential is huge: energy company Alstom estimates that if all suitable tidal sites in the world were tapped for their tidal power, approximately 100 terrawatt hours of electricity could be produced each year – enough to power a city of 20 million people for a year.

The latest breakthrough is locking into the steady, continuous power of underwater ocean currents. The South African city of Durban is planning a unique initiative to tap into the power of the Agulhas Current on the Indian Ocean shore to generate a steady flow of electricity. Florida-based Hydro Alternative Energy is working on the project, and committed to working up a prototype capable of generating a megawatt of power. It won’t upset delicately balanced ecosystems: the vanes powering the turbine move too slowly to harm marine life, and since they’re 30m deep below the surface, shipping channels are not disrupted either.

Cooperation & irrigation
As remarkable as all of these projects promise to be, problems remain. There are environmental concerns about the effects of diverting so much water for hydropower. Just as significantly, critics raise serious concerns about the lack of infrastructure: it’s all very well generating gigawatts of power, but what good is that if there’s nowhere to deliver it? The DRC, for example lacks a national grid to make use of all its hydropower, and has already committed to sell more than half of the Inga dam’s output to South Africa.

This is a major challenge in sub-Saharan Africa, but all is far from lost: across the continent water is being marshalled on a local level and put to good use too.

Take solar water heating, carried out on a house-by-house basis. Governments don’t need to invest billions or spend decades planning these initiatives: people can simply install an SWT system in their own home and ensure cheap hot water throughout much of the year. Earlier this year, the South African government announced a new initiative to help subsidise, manufacture and install a million solar water heaters in homes across the country by early 2015.

Nowhere, though, can grassroots changes to the way water is used have as much impact as they can on farming. Irrigation, the artificial channelling of water onto crops, is used widely in farming to improve crop yields and to enable land to be farmed year round. According to a 2009 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, only six per cent of African farmland is irrigated, compared to 18 per cent worldwide – that number falls to only four per cent south of the Sahara. Yet the same report estimated that agricultural productivity on the continent could be boosted by 50 per cent if  irrigation systems were used alongside rainwater.

Irrigation on an industrial scale can be expensive – digging a canal system on your farm is no easy feat – but advances in technology are helping farmers set up their own systems the world over. Groundwater pumps, both motorised and manually powered, are helping farmers grow their crops year round. According to estimates from a multi-year study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, small, motorised pumps could increase irrigated farmland by 30 million hectares (116,000 square miles) in sub-Saharan Africa alone, creating US$22 billion extra revenue per year in the process.

Then there’s drip irrigation, which uses a system of regulated pipes and valves to deliver the exact amount of water right to the crop roots. This method has been shown to cut water use by up to 70 per cent compared to older methods of irrigation, while increasing crop yields by as much as 90 per cent.

And combined? They’re the dream team: optimum use of water with no wastage, and renewable energy powering the pump system. A drip feed irrigation and a pump powered by the sun can change the lives of people in a community for the better. Take the two small villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi in northern Benin. Since the non-profit organisation SELF (see the sidebar) helped install three of its Solar Market Gardens, income and nutrition levels have risen; each of the gardens produces two tonnes of produce per month, 80 per cent of which farming collectives are able to sell at market.

“Solar-powered drip irrigation systems break seasonal rainfall dependence, which typically limits farmers to a three- to six-month growing season, and support the production of diversified, high-value crops in rural Africa,” says Jennifer Burney, lead author of a university research paper and postdoctoral scholar with the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, which studied the impact of the gardens.

The Holy Grail: drinking water from the sea
While the world searches for a way to provide the growing global population with enough food in the decades to come, it’s easy to overlook another problem: how to provide everyone with drinking water while we’re at it.

Ocean-current power turbines are all very well but they won’t help sustain the billions of people that need fresh water to drink. Consider this: water covers 70 per cent of the planet, but only three per cent is clean enough to drink, and the number isn’t changing. At least, not yet – for earlier this year, defence and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin announced a stunning breakthrough that promises to resolve the problem once and for all.

While desalination of seawater has long been possible, it’s hugely expensive to run on a large scale, and only a few oil-rich countries do so as a result. Lockheed Martin’s new approach shuns the old-fashioned ‘boil away the drinking water and remove the salt’ approach in favour of reverse osmosis through a super-thin filter, with holes a billionth of a metre wide: small enough to let water molecules through, but not salt, chlorine and other particles. Best of all, the graphene membrane used is only one atom thick, making it a hundred times more effective than existing reverse osmosis systems – and consequently hugely cheaper. The newly patented material, Perforene, is, in other words, revolutionary, says the company.

“Access to clean drinking water is going to become more critical as the global population continues to grow, and we believe that this simple and affordable solution will be a game-changer for the industry,” says Dr Ray O Johnson, Lockheed Martin’s chief technology officer.

And when it comes to water, game-changers are what the world needs right now. Bring it on.

Water: In numbers
1.2 billion     People living in areas of physical water scarcity.
500 million   Number in areas approaching this situation.
1.8 billion     The estimated number of people in areas of absolute water scarcity by 2025.
47                The estimated percentage of the world’s population that will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030.
64 billion     Cubic metres cubed of water required by 80 million people, the amount the global population grows by every year.
27%            of the developing world’s urban population without piped water access.

Want to help?
Looking to help make water go further yourself? There are countless charities helping in Africa and across the world to harness the renewable power of water. Here are just three making headway that deserve your donations.

1 charity: water www.charitywater.org
A US-based non-profit organisation with an unusual story: it was set up by a disaffected New York nightclub promoter after a trip to Liberia where he witnessed firsthand the problems that a lack of easily accessible clean drinking water can cause. The charity aims to provide communities with wells, saving residents hours of walking each week. It has since found backing from some of Silicon Valley’s leading figures, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.  Its key selling point: it pledges that 100 per cent of public donations go directly to its work in the field, and to prove that, it even shows where your money goes, tracking the donation and giving you GPS co-ordinates for the ventures it’s gone on, so you can check them out on Google Maps.

2 KickStart www.kickstart.org
NPO KickStart has a broader goal than providing those in need with easily accessible water. In addition to improving water access, it aims to help people turn their lives around and lift them out of poverty with the tools that can help improve their businesses, permanently. Indeed, it has helped start 143,000 new businesses to date. One of its biggest hits has been with the MoneyMaker series of irrigation pumps, which plumb to depths of seven metres to pull out groundwater for crops. The US$250 pumps are tread-powered, but can still irrigate up to two acres of farmland per day, helping boost crops and farmers’ earnings alike.

3 Solar Electric Light Fund www.self.org
SELF’s mission is to harness the power of the sun to help those living in energy poverty, and it’s doing that by channelling the sun’s rays for a specific purpose: pumping water from the ground. Solar pumps pull up water from the earth which would have been otherwise left untapped; when combined with drip irrigation techniques, whole areas are able to cultivate crops all year round, even in dry seasons. SELF’s systems are expensive but can pay for themselves in little over two years.