Finding New Solutions to the Problem of Water Scarcity

In days gone by, water and air were understood to be infinite resources; clean, fresh, and consistently plentiful. In the present day, however, we no longer have the luxury of such assumptions. Growing populations and the demands of agriculture have combined to put the squeeze on freshwater reserves, and no other continent experiences this problem like Africa. An estimated 358 million people across the continent lack access to safe drinking water. Yet as the march of technological progress moves forward, several innovative tools have been developed with the hope of one day eradicating this issue completely.

The Drinkable Book is more than just a repository of information although it does contain text and images regarding the purification of water and its importance. The real value of the book comes from the fact that the pages act as filters, eliminating dangerous bacteria and microbes. The pages, made of a substance called pAge, contain nanoparticles of silver, which is toxic to microscopic organisms, and the amount of silver released by filtering water through pAge is well within U.S. and international guidelines for human consumption. The team behind this invention state that they think each page of the book will be able to filter 100 gallons of water and provide drinkable water to an individual for 30 days. The Drinkable Book has not yet been released; development is being funded through an Indiegogo campaign, which has collected more than $9,000 of its $30,000 goal.

Another invention in this vital area was developed by Dr. Askwar Hilonga of Tanzania. A chemical engineer by trade, Holinga has created a system using sand to filter out more than just microorganisms. Called the Nanofilter, it can remove unwanted metals and chemicals, including pesticides, from water. Dr. Hilonga has received a prize of £25,000 ($38,409) from the Royal Academy of Engineering in the U.K. He will use the money to buy filter materials in bulk, reducing its price below the current $130 per filter. The Nanofilter is expected to enter commercial production in as little as a year.

The problem of inadequate drinking water in Africa has many undesirable consequences. People in areas without sufficient freshwater supplies often use contaminated or polluted water because they have few other options. This impacts sanitation, causing many to fall ill from preventable diseases. Those so affected cannot contribute to the economic growth of their areas, and they must receive treatment for their ailments. Thus insufficient freshwater leads to demands on often overburdened health care infrastructure and economic stagnation.

Growing urbanization is also contributing to the problem. Sub-Saharan Africa already has around 200 million people living in slums, and this figure is expected to double by 2020. Because the region is one in which governments often lack financial resources, the water infrastructures of cities is easily overwhelmed by the arrival of new residents. There’s also the problem of the lack of coordination among governmental agencies. In many cases, it’s unclear which authority is responsible for the provision of clean water. Added to these man-made circumstances is the fact that the continent is subject to many droughts and floods, only making the situation worse.

As much as it has done in the developed world, technology has the chance to improve the lives of millions while fostering economic growth in Africa. Even if The Drinkable Book and Dr. Hilonga’s Nanofilter ultimately fail to achieve their objectives, there are many other organizations trying to do something about water scarcity. Among them is the Gates Foundation, which has funded a machine to convert raw sewage into drinking water.

Besides filtering contaminated water, another option is to use nuclear power plants to desalinate sea water, which Dominion Energy reports would increase reliance on fossil fuels and in turn, raise water prices. Even if a few current endeavors to deliver clean, drinkable water in Africa fail, new researchers will be able to build upon their successes and learn from their failures. With a wide roster innovators – both private and public – trying desperately to ameliorate the problem, one can hope that it will only be a matter of time before an acceptable solution is found.