EIT Climate-KIC supported Elemental Water Makers is a water desalination scale-up that’s transforming water systems by enabling people globally to cope with health and life-threatening freshwater scarcity, which is exacerbated by climate change.
According to the Working Group II’s contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, “For each degree of global warming, approximately 7 per cent of the global population is projected to be exposed to a decrease of renewable water resources of at least 20 per cent.” Furthermore, “Climate change is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, intensifying competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry, and energy production, affecting regional water, energy, and food security.”
As freshwater quantity and quality are increasingly compromised by climate change, water desalination becomes an important strategy to enable people to have clean water they can use for growing food, drinking, bathing and more. But water desalination is not a simple process and demand is projected to increase. According to the UN, approximately one percent of the world’s population is currently dependent on desalinated water to meet daily needs, but it’s expected that 14 per cent of the world’s population will encounter water scarcity by 2025.
The leading process for desalination is reverse osmosis. The reverse osmosis membrane processes use semipermeable membranes and applied pressure to preferentially induce water permeation through the membrane while rejecting salts.
Desalination is an energy-intensive process that results in climate change if the energy comes from fossil fuels. Elemental Water Makers’ innovation uses solar energy to power reverse osmosis. Since solar energy fluctuates over time (from day to night), Elemental Water Makers needed a way to ensure it could sustain the desalination process. So, the company developed a sustainable desalination approach, using less energy due to its energy recovery technology, while at the same time making the reverse osmosis process suitable for coupling with fluctuating renewable energy.
“We always talk about drinking water or taking a shower, but most of the water we use is to grow food: 70 percent versus only 10 per cent for domestic use. Of course, population is increasing, so we need more water to drink but, considering the water footprint, we need a lot of more water to grow food,” said Sid Vollebregt, MSc, Managing Director, Elemental Water Makers. “For example, if we’re drinking coffee in the western world that comes from India, about 140 litres of water is used per cup of coffee consumed. In the Netherlands, half of the water we use is from water scarce places. The water footprint is a global phenomenon that’s very difficult to grasp because it’s not so tangible.”
Elemental Water Makers is trying to address this issue by working with places that have limited water and expensive energy. Moreover, it acts upon urgency, delivering its service to locations facing drought—the frequency and intensity of which is getting worse due to climate change. Elemental Water Makers always works with local partners, which enables it to manage cultural and language barriers, and ensure its offering is the right fit for a given community.
Preserving human health and life is at the forefront of Elemental Water Makers’ mission and is well evidenced by their work in the Global South:
“For example, we just did a project in Madagascar. Some of the people who live there have never had easy access to clean drinking water. They faced a lot of health risks, limited lifespan and spent hours collecting fresh water, said Vollebregt. “Development aid is usually focused around cities because of economic interest and its bigger market size, but at the same time, the majority of people without access to clean drinking water are living in remote areas. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked by NGOs and governments, making it hard to achieve SDG 6.”
This year, Elemental Water Makers achieved its growth stage. It also had a 10 project target and ended up achieving 12. Due to proven results and positive referrals, both demand for its service and its partnerships are increasing. Thus, the scale-up plans on growing further in the new year, and will also be focusing more on disaster relief applications.