March 22 is World Water Day , so let's talk water.
The United Nations has been observing World Water Day since 1994 , and it's hard to exaggerate just how critical this subject is to global sustainability. Everything we think about regarding sustainability -- from energy to agriculture to manufacturing to population -- has a water footprint. Almost all of the water on Earth is salt water, and the remaining freshwater supplies are split between agricultural use and human use -- as well as maintaining the existing natural environment. A billion people on Earth are without safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion don't have access to safe sanitation. Simply put, a future that doesn't have good ideas about water for the planet is a future that's going to be nasty, brutish, and short.
Fortunately, there are some very smart people thinking about and working on this subject. I had the honor of spending the last week at Kennedy Space Center with a group called LAUNCH  (beware: autoplaying movie on main page), a new organization intended to dig up and offer support to innovations in sustainability. Sponsored by NASA, the Department of State, Aid for International Development, and Nike, LAUNCH's inaugural meeting focused on water. Our mornings were spent getting a look at the Kennedy Space Center facilities, but our afternoons and evenings focused exclusively on a set of innovative proposals around the production, distribution, and social/political norms of water.
All were quite interesting. Here are a few examples:
- Dutyion Root Hydration System , a mouthful of a name for something that's actually pretty remarkable. The system takes a specialized form of hydrophilic plastic and converts it into heavy-duty tubes suitable for below-ground irrigation. If you run saltwater (or similarly brackish/unusable water) through the tubes, the plastic wicks the water out as vapor, permeating it into the soil, which can then support many kinds of food crops and trees. That is, this plastic would let you irrigate orchards and farmland with sea water.
There are still plenty of questions, most critically about how long the plastic lasts and how to bring down production cost (it's not cheap, at present), but the utility of something like would be enormous. Test uses in the Middle East have already shown quite a bit of promise; one use that could be of particular value would be to maintain trees to fight desertification.
- The Floating Sensor Network  is a project from the University of California, Berkeley, that uses swarms of semi-active robots to float through rivers and other freshwater courses, taking readings on water quality, turbidity, salinity, and other characteristics. The floating sensors are intended for use both as a way of monitoring ongoing conditions in deltas, estuaries, and the like, as well as in disaster-response situations involving flooding and potentially contaminated water supplies. Data from the floating sensors will be combined with inputs from stationary devices to create an integrated, dynamic map of water conditions; the value of floating sensors is that they can track where the water is going with extreme precisions, correlating that to changing environmental readings.
Emergency management groups are interested in the floating sensor network as a way of monitoring levees for early signs of damage, and for keeping a close watch on water flows and contamination in the case of levee breakage. The current model robots are fairly large, in order to hold as-yet-undetermined varieties of sensors, but the eventual goal is for something roughly the size of ping-pong balls.
- Manna Energy  is a non-profit organization that's working to deliver basic water filtration and distribution technologies powered by renewable energy. They have a current project underway in Rwanda, installing solar-powered systems that clean water using ultraviolet light and sand filtering. When complete, this project will provide clean water to 350,000 people who currently make use of water with bacterial counts equivalent to raw sewage. Manna Energy will also be introducing biogas generators and high-efficiency stoves, all with the goal of improving lives in Rwanda.
For now, the Manna Energy work is underwritten by foundation grants, but the intent is that these projects will eventually be funded by carbon credits via the "Clean Development Mechanism " in the Kyoto Protocol. The carbon credits would come from the replacement of wood and coal used in rural villages for cooking, and to clean water through boiling.
That's just three of the ten projects we examined during LAUNCH:Water. One theme proved consistent across all of them, however: that we have in our hands the tools we need to improve water quality and access. From desalination to decontamination, sensing to software, the tools we encountered reflect just a thin slice of the ongoing invention and experimentation out there, all intended to make certain that access to, and the quality of, the substance most fundamental to life -- water -- serves not as a barrier to development, but a catalyst.
On this World Water Day, 2010, it's hard not to feel a bit of hope for the future.