Innovation in water, part 3: necessity is the mother of invention

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 Futuristic water design that would provide water for food in the desert, featured in The Guardian in 2008. Photograph: Exploration Architecture.

“What are the new developments in water? Are there new technologies that developing countries could use to bypass expensive and cumbersome systems?  What’s the next big thing that could solve the water crisis?”  Politicians and the media often ask experts for new ideas to make water “interesting”.  Yet, on the whole, water systems constructed today use much of the same technology they did 100 years ago. 

Certainly, it’s not all about technology –  appropriate demand, social structures and institutions have to be in place to make technology effective and sustainable. In the chapter on innovation in the WDR2010, we compare the share of revenues that private companies invest in research and development in the energy sector  (0.5%) with that of electronics ( 8% ) and pharmaceuticals (15%), to show that the energy industry hasn’t exactly pushed the envelope in terms of innovation. We didn’t even think to find out how much private water companies invest in research.  Yet I’d be surprised if it were as high as 1.5%.  The water sector has not historically been a hothouse of new technology. 

In Israel, however, I met a venture capitalist who specialized in water companies.  These companies develop new filtering systems that can cut energy use in water treatment by 50%, new “smart pipes” that detect leaks in a municipal system, self-powered water monitoring systems that rely on tiny hydro generators inserted in water pipes, and other smart ideas. 

An example of solar-powered desalination technology Israel is seeking to develop and export.

I also met the former head of the national water carrier, Mekorot, who told me had hired someone a decade ago from the high tech industry to be a “champion of innovation”.  This champion had established all sorts of pilots, joint ventures and other initiatives that led to the creation of large-scale investments and flourishing companies today. 

People in Israel were describing the water industry as “sleeping beauty just beginning to wake up”.  This happened, they said, because of a tight connection between government, academia and the private sector.  Helped, of course, by the high political profile of water in the country, the availability of public and private funds for investment and the incentives created by the high water tariffs and effective regulation. 

Certainly technology is only part of the puzzle and not necessarily the most important part.  But faster innovation in the sector has to become more important to meet the water needs of 9 billion people and adapt to climate change.  We can already imagine some of the required innovations – for example fully-operational solar-powered desalination – but others will meet needs we can’t even foresee.

See also: Innovation in water, part 1: drip irrigation and part 2: desalination


Julia Bucknall

Director for Environment and Natural Resources

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