From The Editor | April 7, 2015

New Frontiers In Desalination

By Kevin Westerling


As persistent, widespread drought dominates headlines and decimates farmland, a competition held this month by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) turns to innovative desalination technologies for answers. In advance of the Desal Prize competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, I spoke with Ku McMahan, team lead for Securing Water for Food (SWFF), about the water-food nexus and technology’s role in providing solutions.

As background, SWFF is a collaborative among USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (MFA-NL) created in 2013 at World Water Week in Stockholm “to source and accelerate innovations … that will enable the production of more food with less water.” Simply stated, but hard to achieve.

The Desal Prize candidates, and especially the winners — to be announced on Earth Day, April 22 — may provide the means to water and food security for future generations, even in the face of extreme drought. Learn more from this Q&A with Ku:

How is Securing Water for Food acting as an incubator for water technology innovation?

Securing Water for Food is the fifth Grand Challenge for Development, and we’ve learned through past experience that financial support alone is not enough to help accelerate innovations and deliver impact. We work with a variety of experts and organizations to support our awardees with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, whether it’s networking, business model refinement, communications, or any other types of coaching.

Similarly, we look to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial innovators — this is why we require applicants to propose viable business models. Securing Water for Food is not funding traditional development projects. Rather, we are “investing” in innovations at the water-food nexus that have high potential to be brought to scale — whether they are market-driven products in the process of business development (Stage 1) or established innovations ready for scaling and commercial growth (Stage 2). With the announcement of our third call for innovations, we’re eager to see new groundbreaking technologies and models from around the world.

How can we bring innovative technologies to market faster?

Understanding the local enabling environment for technology and business innovations is a crucial part of innovations making it to market in a faster, more sustainable way. Even from the application phase, innovators must be able to demonstrate understanding of local market challenges and conditions. They must also either already have a presence or one local partner in the developing country where they propose to work. This foundation, coupled with the acceleration support provided by Securing Water for Food, may greatly assist innovations in making it to market more efficiently and effectively. Similarly, we encourage applicants to develop market-driven partnerships that can help bring their innovation to scale, and we also assist in building these relationships.

What impact do you anticipate the SWFF initiative to have for municipalities and industry, which also struggle with scarcity concerns?

SWFF innovations mostly focus on a targeted set of consumers or end-users, so it is currently unclear how much impact that will have on municipalities. That being said, we expect that in some locations, municipalities may be interested in adopting these innovations for wider-scale use.

Cost-effective desalination seems the panacea for water scarcity. What progress are you seeing in that regard?

Cost-effective desalination is actually one of the three focus areas under Securing Water for Food and the reason that we launched the Desal Prize, the second call under the Challenge. To satisfy future water demand, we must augment traditional water supplies with alternate sources — such as brackish groundwater. While brackish water desalination technologies do exist on the market, few (if any) have proven to be suitable for use and cost-competitive in rural or remote settings. When looking at the global implications of the water-food nexus, environmentally sustainable desalination technology could provide smallholder farmers with reliable water sources.

Through the Desal Prize, we received an overwhelming response from teams with a variety of backgrounds who proposed innovative, diverse technologies to fill this gap. The finalists we selected will actually compete in a demonstration of their technologies at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility. Both the response to the Prize and the technologies we’ve seen indicate a substantial potential for progress in this area. SWFF believes that if we can draw people’s attention to this problem through the prize, others will come up with solutions that can hopefully become more cost-competitive over time.

BGNDRF in Alamogordo, NM (Credit: New Mexico State University)

How will population growth impact water supply, if steps aren’t taken to increase resources?

Between 2000 and 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow from almost 7 billion to over 9 billion. During this same period, water demand is projected to increase by 55 percent globally. As more than 70 percent of global water use occurs in the food value chain, feeding the world in 2050 will be difficult if steps aren’t taken to increase resources.

Besides technology advances, what actions can be taken by municipalities and industries to curb water scarcity?

Often, there is an inequality between women and men in the use of water innovations, leading to men controlling both the inputs and outputs in production. Working to ensure that women are involved in water resources management and similar activities can have a tremendous impact on increasing effectiveness and efficiency of both new and existing initiatives. Highlighting the roles, skills, and capacities of women could lead to advancements in water security that serve not only households, but entire communities.

What are the key requirements that need to be successfully met for SWFF to attain its goals?

Sustainability is a key requirement that successful applicants must be able to demonstrate — financially, institutionally, environmentally, technologically, and socially. Similarly, they must avoid negative environmental effects and local market distortions, as well as directly or indirectly benefit the poor. Another key requirement is user-centered design, which requires an understanding of the local environment. We’ve found that technology for the sake of technology can significantly reduce availability and usability, so we’re looking for truly innovative approaches that not only go beyond traditional development projects, but also focus on the needs of the end user. Finally, we consider Securing Water for Food grants and support as an investment to catalyze investments by others, rather than a subsidy. Innovative financing, partnerships, and other non-SWFF investments all play an important role in supporting the commercialization of these technologies and approaches in the food sector — and contributing to the overall investment in the water-food nexus, which will be crucial to future security of these resources.