Nanotechnology and the global challenge of access to clean water
This targeted workshop aims to increase awareness and promote dialogue, networking, coordinated policy initiatives and fact-finding related to the opportunities and challenges of nanotechnology to contribute to the purification of water.
Purified, clean, water is rapidly becoming a scarce resource for socio-economic developments globally. Megatrends driving the economics of clean water relate to population growth, increasing demand for energy, pollution, and climate change. Population growth is increasing the demand for water as a major input for agriculture while the energy sector already now is one of the major users of clean water in the developed world. Meanwhile climate change and drought are compounding the problems especially of developing countries. Worldwide 1.2 billion people lack access to sufficient amounts of clean water, 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation. This combination is the single largest cause of diseases and deaths in the world, accounting for approximately 3.4 million deaths annually.
The scarcity of clean water is essentially an access problem. While over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water most of it is unusable for consumption, especially to meet human needs. Freshwater lakes, rivers, ice and snow, and underground aquifers hold only 2.5% of the world’s water, while saltwater oceans and seas contain the remaining 97.5%. In addition to being relatively scarce, freshwater access is also very unevenly distributed with the least access for the developing world. Meanwhile available freshwater supplies are increasingly threatened due to the contamination of aquifers, from toxic compounds to salts intruding and contaminating these supplies.
The accessibility problems of clean water relate not only to freshwater scarcity but also to the fact that current water purification techniques are relatively expensive, increase stress on watersheds and the environment, and are not readily transferable to the developing world. Further, many existing techniques are very energy-intensive and thereby at odds with the mega-trends identified above. Emerging nanotechnologies, notably in the field of filtration and desalination, catalysts, new materials and sensors, may offer prospects of improving this situation. Analysts, scientists and technologists, as well as watersuppliers are increasingly pointing to the opportunities that nanotechnology hold for the provision of affordable and efficient new water purification techniques that may ease the accessibility problem. However, the development, commercialisation and diffusion of nanotechnology also faces many challenges, some of which might be even more pronounced in the context of water.