Australian aid program looking for innovative water solution

Women collect water in Rajastan, India. Photo by: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

Climate change and population growth are creating increasing pressure on food and water — and to solve the need, innovative solutions will be required. The issue of water scarcity in the near future is an issue Australia’s aid program is attempting to solve today.

“Only one percent of the earth’s water resources can be used for human consumption,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told media. “This ground and surface water is unevenly distributed, which can lead to the spread of disease, conflict over resources, irregular migration and slowed economic development.”

Since water security is a severe issue for Australia’s focal region of the Indo-Pacific, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are calling on inventors from around the globe to help solve the problem. They are being tasked to design an economical device that will extract 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using entirely renewable energy.

Scientists, engineers, academics, entrepreneurs and other creative minds are encouraged to compete as a team or individual. Registration for the Water Abundance XPRIZE closes on March 31 and is followed by a 17-month process of designing, testing and evaluating inventions with the winning team announced in Aug. 2018.

The reward for the best solution is $1.5 million.

Innovative partnerships to deliver innovative outcomes

Through innovationXchange — a division within DFAT tasked to identify, test and scale new solutions to intractable development challenges — the Australian aid program has helped develop a number of innovative aid solutions through ideas competitions.

DFAT’s challenge to solve issues of water shortage involves a 2.18 million Australian dollars ($1.7 million) investment, which includes funding the running of the competition, grand prize and five milestone prizes of $50,000 each. Because water science and engineering is not an area in which DFAT has the technical capability to identify and nurture a winning invention, XPRIZE and the Tata Group came in.

XPRIZE, which has won acclaim for its open competitions to solve major technology problems, in turn introduced DFAT to the Tata Group, a multinational conglomerate based in India that has been at the forefront of innovative and technological development through industries such as steel, power and teleservices.

Zenia Tata, executive director for global development and international expansion with XPRIZE, explained to Devex that the water competition was already in the works before DFAT came on board. But their presence enabled the scope of the awards to be increased with a larger prize pool, milestone prizes and an agenda that was focused on access and affordability.

Watch XPRIZE’s Zenia Tata speak at Devex World about the need to change mindsets and move toward a more global, exponential way of seeing the world. Instead of approaching work from a perspective of scarcity, the development community should adopt a perspective of abundance and “embrace technologies that will help us bridge this huge global divide.”

“DFAT were really pushy about renewable energy and making this extremely sustainable,” she said. “They have brought, as part of our advisory committee, a really loud voice for affordability and equal access. Through their work in island nations, DFAT understands development needs and they want to make sure it [the solution] is applicable to rural development and remote island nations.”  

The combined partnership, Tata said, has developed a robust competition that will have an important impact on the world.

Why the competition is critical

John Beddington, co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, told Devex the competition was an important step in addressing critical water shortages. “The worry I have at the moment is that a lot of water in Africa is sub-surface water and it is not sustainable,” he said.

“If you think about the statistics in Africa, predictions are for something of the order of an increase of about 1,000 cities or 500,000 people. Where is the water coming from? You need water for agriculture, industry and more.”

Today the World Health Organization estimates that there are 1.8 billion people drinking from contaminated water sources, leading to more than 500,000 deaths annually. Moreover, 663 million people rely on unimproved water sources, including 159 million who are dependant on surface water. And by 2025, WHO believe half of the world’s population will be living in areas that are water-stressed if urgent action is not taken.

Visiting Brisbane, Australia, as a keynote speaker at the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society annual conference, Beddington praised DFAT calling the competition “a big deal.” But he said engineering solutions need to be combined with social reform to change the way we use and value water. “Water can be wasted and used for mad things,” he said. “I think in the developed world, there is a real issue that it is a free good. Australians who suffered from the 10 year drought are more careful with water now. This is promising, but we need to see more.”

Solving a problem for the world

Tata explained to Devex that today’s atmospheric water extraction solutions are either massive industrial machinery or small household gadgets with nothing in between that would meet the needs of developing countries by providing decentralized access to water on demand. “We thought this was really ripe for a breakthrough,” she said. “We can provide fresh water, where you need it, when you need it. Imagine if you don’t have to [in a remote area] rely on infrastructure that only government can bring. Imagine if you can access water in the quantities you need it, when you need it. Day or night.” It is a revolutionary concept that Tata believes will provide breakthroughs for a range of new markets and impact multiple geographies from California to Calcutta.

Since the Water Abundance challenge has the potential to provide a large development impact, DFAT has big plans for the winner’s invention. “The grand prize winner will be announced in August 2018, after which DFAT intends to promote and trial promising technologies developed through the competition in our region,” DFAT’s spokesperson said.

A successful outcome will not just address Australia’s own aid goals in the Indo-Pacific region; it will play an important role in the global response to the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Water Abundance XPRIZE will address lack of access to clean water for 6 billion people, encapsulated in Sustainable Development Goal 6,” explained DFAT’s spokesperson.

Getting involved

Despite prize money being awarded, the ownership of products developed will remain in the hands of the winning team. “Neither XPRIZE, DFAT nor Tata Group receive IP for any of the technologies that may be developed — IP rests with the teams that develop potential solutions,” a spokesperson for DFAT said. So far 117 individual registrations have been received representing a wide variety of scientific sector and geographies. But there is room for more ideas.

For budding inventors, the Water Abundance XPRIZE is an opportunity to learn and be mentored through the design and development process of a new technology. But it also enables one special team to leave an important scientific mark by developing a world-changing technology.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.