Overview:

The world is filled with great heaviness. Today, let's focus on the hope that we can see in our response to global water issues.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A common belief in journalism is that you have to emphasize the horror of a situation to spur action. If people aren’t driven by an existential threat, how can we ever expect them to act for a better world? But the well of our world’s suffering runs deep enough with sorrow. We still have a pandemic in progress. We’re dealing with a wide range of environmental crises, and seeing very little political capital for meaningful change. There’s a bloody war on in Europe, and our distinct treatment of its refugees is a source of great pain for communities that experienced far more xenophobic responses to their own flights from conflict.

So, no. We don’t always need to drink from the cup of worldly sorrows. This World Water Day, let’s lean into the evidence that we can and are making a better world. The well of our suffering may run deep, but there’s hope in its waters, too.

Healing the sick

One other health crisis you might have heard about is our ongoing struggle with cholera. This is a nasty disease that rears its head in places with poor sanitation and little access to clean water. There have been seven full-on pandemics in the last two centuries, and we still see a range of regional outbreaks and epidemics wherever water filtration and sanitation systems break down.

Cholera is an especially big threat in war-torn regions like Yemen and Democratic Republic of Congo, in regions with massive flooding coupled with poor sanitation (like Nigeria), and wherever refugee camps struggle to support large populations.

But how the world responded to the last cholera outbreak in Haiti is cause for hope.

In October 2010, not long after a devastating earthquake destabilized already poor sanitation and filtration systems, officials confirmed the first Haitian case of cholera in half a century. By March 2011, it had killed 4,672 people, and hospitalized thousands more. August 2012? 7,490. November 2013? 8,448.

If you’ll notice, though, those numbers mark a swift reduction in the death rate after the initial surge. When Haiti this year reached its triumph of three years without a confirmed case, the outbreak’s death toll stood at 9,611 as of 2019.

In other words, an immediate and comprehensive response from Haiti’s Ministry of Health, supported by groups like UNICEF and PAHO-WHO, significantly curbed transmission and fixed underlying causes. The technology, the resources, the human capacity and networks: everything we needed to counter this one crisis, in this one region, we as flawed species somehow rallied for Haiti’s cholera outbreak.

And even though a recent earthquake again threatened Haiti’s water systems? That local humanitarian work over the last decade still seems to be holding up. It’s been seven months since the earthquake… with no new cholera cases reported. Fantastic.

Constant vigilance is, of course, important. A disease like cholera can spread quickly through fecal matter in compromised waterways. As such, any region affected by environmental disasters and civil conflicts could easily see key protective infrastructure fall apart.

However, there’s a difference between resting on our laurels and allowing ourselves to be affirmed by the concrete benefits of acting. The latter offers much-needed hope, sometimes, to keep the momentum of our humanitarian efforts going strong.

So, though all the world may be awash in heavy news, do remember:

Proper implementation of key social policies can save lives and lighten the load.

Inventing in abundance

And here’s another bit of positive news on the water-crisis front: we are such good innovators. Yes, we’re currently grappling with water-access issues that affect some 771 million (for potable water) and 1.7 billion (for access to improved sanitation). But we certainly don’t lack for possible solutions to the problem.

In the field of water-from-thin-air devices, we have come up with dozens of possible implementations to address water-scarce regions. Sure, some are elaborate and power-sucking products that work similarly to air conditioners, for costly installation in homes and offices, or (optimistically, with solar power) in refugee camps.

But some have a profound elegance in their (manufactured) simplicity.

Fog nets traditionally use a large polyethylene or polypropylene mesh that catches water vapor in the passing air, and guides it into collection containers beneath the net. In their original formation, they weren’t powerful enough to catch water outside of select environments with ideal weather conditions. However, in 2018 Shing-Chung Josh Wong’s team at the University of Akron in Ohio developed a material, electrospun polymers tangled around expanded graphite, that offers a larger collection area while still encouraging the water to drip down. This promises to improve the versatility of this technology in much more arid terrain.

Another surprisingly straightforward solution comes to us through carbon-based nanorods. In a specific configuration (illustrated as a rod splitting into three splayed parts in technical diagrams) they create a gap where water can gather. The key to this material design’s utility, though, came upon the researchers by accident. They had assumed that this material would keep collecting and storing water as the humidity rose. Instead, after reaching a certain concentration, the divided ends of the nanorods would start to contract in on themselves. And what happened to the water? It naturally rolled out of the narrowing gap.

The team had unintentionally designed a “sponge”-like carbon material with enough resilience that it could help with water collection in hard-hit regions.

Multipurpose solutions, too!

Then there are more ambitious inventions like the WEDEW (Wood-to-Energy Deployable Water) system. This shipping-container-sized honker of a mobile generator takes in biomass, and extracts water vapor from it into the air. This allows the device to provide drinkable water and produce biochar. It also serves as a carbon-negative technology by sequestering key greenhouse-gas emitting materials. Where biomass is not abundant, the device can also produce water on solar or battery for pennies a day.

We also don’t necessarily need to build anything super-fancy to reduce water-waste closer to home. Rainwater collection systems can help individual households put environmental events to work for them, and with a DIY solar-powered water purification system, you could conceivably reduce your home’s draw from the water grid during periods of regional drought. (Solarpunk for the win!)

The follow-through

Notably, of course, many of these solutions (and others, including hydrogels and self-refilling drinking bottles) are a mixed bag of private and public research. And yes, this means we still need to incentivize a major push to open-source our implementation of all related findings. If water is indeed a human right, we need to act like it. We need to support inventors in their development of design solutions made accessible to us all.

But the wide range of existing design solutions, and the promise of ongoing innovation, should still give us hope. Why? Because it means that we already have many of the tools we need to protect key water systems in the face of current and impending environmental crises.

The most important tool now is less technical, and more political. We saw an incredible will-to-act manifest around Haiti’s cholera outbreak, and the number of people without access to potable water is going down. Instead of dwelling on how rare this kind of effective response has been, let’s build on our current successes.

What could we do right now, in our backyards as in our global advocacy, to push for similar transformations elsewhere? Yes, there are plenty of organizations we can support, to keep up the good work with water-crisis management. But how might we also play a role in broader cultural transformations? What could we do to cultivate open-source and collaborative responses to human rights crises wherever they arise?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.