Why Our Global Water Crisis Needs a Moonshot

Mar 22 2017

Article cover image

On World Water Day, we are served a powerful reminder that water is life. Water is the universal link between human survival, our climate system and sustainable global development. But a quick search on Google with the question, “Will earth ever run out of water?” will spring up an optimistic ‘never’ in a matter of milliseconds. A check of the facts illustrates that planet Earth is covered with 71% water and the amount of water will always remain the same, merely changing its form over time. However, according to The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016, the world could face a 40% global water deficit by 2030. I know we can change that with Moonshot Thinking. Bridging the gap to ensure water abundance for all, lies first and foremost in knowing how much water is available and in what form.

The earth’s water systems currently face three overarching challenges that contribute to water scarcity: lack of availability, uneven distribution & access and contamination. While 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, only a scant 3% of this is drinkable. What's more, a large portion of it is tucked away in frozen glaciers and is off limits. Access to clean drinking water is a global crisis impacting more than 40% of the world’s population. This staggering figure is only projected to worsen with a rise in global temperatures as a dire consequence of climate change, relentless urbanization and ever-booming population. According to the NASA database, 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers - the underground layer of water-bearing permeable rocks - have surpassed their sustainability threshold. We are extracting more water than nature can replace and replenish.

The future looks bleak. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the global population living in water-stressed conditions. Even more worrying is the fact that unlike energy, we haven’t found any new sources of water. The problem is real, urgent and begs for a moonshot solution, in order for the world to leapfrog to a future of water abundance.

Enter Moonshot Thinking. The approach to Moonshot Thinking is simple and bold: take on global-scale problems, define radical, non-linear solutions to those problems and embrace breakthrough exponential technologies and tools that not only bring the solution to life, but scales the solution for true and lasting global impact. But doing this takes some serious non-conventional thinking. The two inspirations that I often turn to for crazy, bold ideas are Science Fiction and Nature. Science fiction can open up our imagination to futuristic scenarios and technologies that defy the bounds of practicality. Nature, on the other hand, has been iterating and perfecting designs for billions of years on our planet; surely we can glean some amazing insights from what we see around us.

To unleash the world’s innovation potential and make a moonshot happen, it is critical to ignite the untapped genius and creativity across the world. XPRIZE designs and operates global competitions, such as the Water Abundance XPRIZE, that utilize a unique combination of gamification, crowd-sourcing, incentive prize theory and exponential technologies to inspire innovators everywhere to solve the world’s most pressing problems. This is basis the belief that igniting rapid experimentation from a variety of diverse perspectives and geographies is the most efficient and effective method to driving exponential impact and new solutions.

We live in extraordinary times. Fortunately, technology is allowing individuals to accomplish what was once impossible. Empowered by smart phones, the internet, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous networks, cloud computing, robotics, digital manufacturing, and other exponential technologies, individuals are solving vexing problems that have perplexed us for years and improving the lives of billions of people around the world. By embracing the inherent human thirst for competition, and by validating the competition with a large cash prize, we hope to motivate some of the best minds to apply their extraordinary talents toward well-defined and world-changing challenges.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 underscores that ensuring access to clean water for all is at the heart of sustainable global development, critical to the survival of people and our planet. Unlocking a moonshot solution that addresses the lack of fresh water has the remarkable potential to positively impact the livelihood of more than 500 million people around the world who live in humid areas where atmospheric water extraction would be a transformative and viable technology, especially throughout India and the Indo-Pacific where climate can often be unforgiving and unpredictable. This Water Abundance XPRIZE aims to ensure unprecedented quality and sustainability of water resources worldwide.

Innovators of the world, join the adventure in reaching for this moonshot. Spark a water abundance revolution that will ensure a better tomorrow for us and generations to come.

Zenia Tata is Executive Director of Global Expansion at XPRIZE and prize lead for the Water Abudance XPRIZE - a $1.75 million competition powered by Tata Group and Australian Aid, challenging teams to alleviate the global water crisis with energy-efficient technologies that harvest fresh water from thin air. Deadline for team registration is April 28, 2017.