How startups are helping to solve the global water crisis

Secure access to clean, affordable drinking water should be a given for everyone on Earth. It was particularly concerning, therefore, to hear the World Health Organisation announcement last year that 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 4.5bn lack robust sanitation. 

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Global demand for safe water consumption brings with it significant challenges, across a variety of considerations; security, health, environmental concerns, economic productivity, social cohesion, and gender discrimination to name but a few. While these challenges are daunting, they are not insurmountable, and there are fantastically innovative companies looking to solve the variety of difficulties facing populations in developing economies. 

In regions where water is a prized commodity, control over the delivery infrastructure can hold significant appeal. Taps – often installed and then abandoned without thought for further upkeep – become centres of power and a challenge to authorities and regulators. Stagnant water (building up around taps in ill-repair) can also become a source of further hygiene issues. 

Additionally, water supply pressure disproportionately affects women. Only in Mongolia do male household members have primary responsibility for water collection. Studies estimate that women and girls spend a combined 266m hours each day collecting water, which understandably has a powerful drag both on economic involvement as well as female social empowerment. 

No water scarity, green environment, happy children, happy world!

Many startups are tackling water scarcity problems like these in countries where this is a particularly large issue, such as one company who have developed a 10-litre personal water purification unit that can be transported like a backpack. It purifies 10 litres of water in 30 minutes, and is reusable so a family of four can have clean drinking water for up to 2 months. Similarly, Folia water has created a water filtration system that makes use of recyclable, biodegradable paper, all for less than a penny a day. 

Some communities also need cost-effective solutions that contribute to transparency, security, and upkeep, a challenge being addressed by eWaterPay, which uses mobile technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) to enhance water infrastructure across Africa. Coupling contactless and blockchain technology with IoT and engineering prowess, eWaterPay has been able to answer many of the challenges that African countries face when it comes to water security.

Topping up a prepaid tag either through mobile, online, or at local stores, users can simply touch in to the smart taps to access water, at the same price as before, with increased security and transparency. This creates records not only of purchasing patterns, but also flags where taps are most used, and allow administrators to predict the type of upkeep each tap requires.  

As part of a growing number of “leapfrog” technologies present in developing economies, allowing economies to run from cash-to-cloud. In changing how communities buy water, solutions like eWaterPay can have a significant impact on shifting perceptions across local economies; if a family is able to pay ahead for water, there is no reason why a similar microfinancing approach can’t be adopted for hygiene and healthcare products, for example. 

In some areas of the world, the challenge is less to do with access, and more to do with wastage. Altered is a startup looking to solve this problem with a simple innovation - a fit-on faucet for the end of taps. By aerating water coming out of the tap, Altered is able to conserve up to 98% of water used in everyday activities like hand washing, creating economic, social and environmental benefits for users. We’re particularly proud of Unilever’s Sunlight laundry soap partnering with Altered to work on a scalable, plastic version of Altered’s nozzle, which will allow the benefits to be felt far wider. 

Water security and hygiene remain significant, generation-defining challenges for large areas of the globe. As environmental change takes place at an increasingly rapid pace, pressure on shared resources like fresh, safe water will only increase. It is up to all of us to take greater consideration over our use of water, and at Unilever Foundry we're particularly excited about the potential of bright innovative startups working in collaboration with larger organisations and communities to find solutions like the ones we’ve discussed here. Hopefully, through the energy of agile startups, and the scale and reach of larger companies, the aspiration of solving today’s water crisis looks a little more attainable.