Water scarcity is one of the world’s leading problems affecting almost 1.1 billion people globally, according to the International Decade for Action “Water for Life.” Climate change also contributes to the diminishing water supply in most countries, causing streams and other bodies of water to run dry. The record shows that the number of lives threatened by this occurrence is increasing and the alternatives available are only limited.
In line with its cause to enhance the lives of underprivileged ones, the World Health Organization listed underdeveloped nations experiencing severe water shortages, but sadly does not have the capabilities to develop technologies that will solve scarcity and maintain the flow of water supply for future use. Countries under the coast of Africa dominate the list, and nowadays, are suffering from dwindling of water resources.
According to the World Health Organization, water shortage does not only refer to the physical lack of water, because if you add that to the equation, developed countries like the US would also be in the same position with Africa. It is often more about the economic resources perspective, and how the region can acquire or maintain an abundant supply of water.
Eastern Africa has long been the target of humanitarian aid from UNICEF and UNHCR. The countries under this land have an arid climate that is prone to drought. Further, due to its weak economy, everyone’s back is against the wall. This situation leaves millions of people in a global crisis where there is no reliable access to fresh and even clean water.
Engineers from the University of Texas at Austin offer a new solution that would help Africa fix its water scarcity through solar-powered technology that can provide clean and usable water. The breakthrough could be used in disaster situations, water crisis, or poverty-stricken areas in both developing and underdeveloped countries.
A research team led by Guihua Yu created a technology which relies mainly on hydrogels or gel-polymer hybrid materials, intended to be ‘super sponges’ that can store large amounts of water.
In 2018, Yu and Zhao started to develop a solar-powered water purification innovation using hydrogels that cleans or purifies water through solar energy. The team’s new project takes that work a step further by creating combined materials that possess both hygroscopic (water-absorbing) qualities and thermal responsive hydrophilicity (the ability to release water upon heating). This discovery opens the creation of a potentially life-saving trick which is pulling water out of thin air.
The innovation is designed to harvest moisture from the air and produce clean water during sunlight. It requires only the sun’s power to provide enough water that can meet the daily water consumption of an average household.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the World Health Organization, is planning to sponsor the said project to be used in East African countries which are suffering from a terrible water crisis. Most places in these African plains have little to zero access to natural freshwater for drinking and other purposes.
According to the assessment done by hydrologists, a population needs 1,700 cubic meters per person (the national threshold for water requirements), and below 1,000 cubic meters is considered as a state of water scarcity.
Today, East Africa has the highest number of water-stressed countries among others. Out of 800 million people who live in that area, almost 300 million is in a water-stressed environment. And, as per WHO, it is most likely that by 2030, 75 to 250 million people in East Africa will be living in waterless extents.
The United Nations, UNICEF, and WHO, in compliance with the Millenium Development Goals, should be the first agents to introduce the project to these countries. Given the increased threat of drought, the 50,000 cubic kilometers contained in the atmosphere, can make 50 liters per kilogram of water production daily, which is enough already to aid the needs of most communities.
This project is intended to help underdeveloped and developing countries which are suffering from water crisis, according to Yu. Since this is economically-friendly, the budget for building such material on East Africa is not actually expensive. The Saharan and East African government already agreed to these organizations that they would provide help in any ways as long as the problem with water shortages will be given solution.
People in these specific countries will only have to leave the hydrogel outside, and it will thoroughly collect water. According to the team, the machine will work just fine with no complicated procedures or technicalities to operate the device. The collected water will remain in the hydrogel until you expose it to sunlight, then after five minutes, the water will be released.
However, it will need a thorough educational discussion with the communities in East Africa, including its proper uses and advantages. And, although it may seem to be a long process, the fact that this innovation aims to solve Africa’s water crisis, is already an excellent milestone for UNICEF and its partners.
Technology is beneficial especially if it is being used in a manner that can aid thousands of people and offers a solution to a specific problem. The research team has already moved to patent the device. With future advances, the machine could also replace solar-powered water purification systems for developed nations and a significant step to start transforming not just Africa but some impoverished countries around the world.