Though water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, freshwater is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. It makes up only 3 percent of the world’s water supply, and most of it is stuck in ice caps and glaciers.
By 2025, it’s expected that 1.8 billion people worldwide will be living in water scarcity, lacking a water supply that meets their basic needs, including drinking water and water used for growing crops. Two thirds of the population will face water stress – one step below scarcity. And water scarcity isn’t only a lack in supply; it can also occur when there’s a lack of economic resources to provide clean water.
Today, 2.8 billion people face either physical or economic barriers to clean water access. In developing countries, nearly 80 percent of disease is linked to substandard water sanitation while globally, over one third of people lack access to water sanitation facilities. With climate change exacerbating the problem, innovative solutions to water scarcity and sanitation will be the key to addressing human needs in a way that is harmonious with the environment.
This is why, since 2015, the AquaHacking movement has encouraged innovators to tackle North America’s water supply problems. Started by Aqua Forum, a charitable organization run through the Quebec-based de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation, AquaHacking encourages innovative thinking to improve or construct new clean-water technologies.
Each year the AquaHacking Challenge unites university students from tech, engineering and a host of other fields to solve water issues facing the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin. The initiative addresses North America’s freshwater supply issues by forming cross-sector collaborations between tech, environment, academia and government.
“The AquaHacking Challenge and its design was really about engaging the next generation,” says Kariann Aarup, interim director of operations with AquaHacking. “Let’s find solutions, let’s innovate, let’s brainstorm; let’s become entrepreneurs around water.”
Let’s find solutions, let’s innovate, let’s brainstorm; let’s become entrepreneurs around water.
Over a period of several months each year, multidisciplinary teams from around the world work together with mentors and coaches to develop water-tech solutions. Teams are given technological resources to help them with data analysis and design.
“What we really wanted to do with the AquaHacking Challenge was…have a process whereby these young innovators would come in contact with stakeholders and understand the water issue and get building capacity,” says Aarup. “We focus on a watershed, then we identify who are the water leaders working on water issues around that watershed, and what are the issues they’re working on.”
Students are able to apply the skills and theory they learn in class to real-world problems. If a solution emerges from such problems, she says, they have to be given a chance to develop an idea beyond its theoretical applications. It’s the real world that matters.
This year’s AquaHacking final was held on October 25th as part of Ontario’s Water Innovation Week. Starting in March, five finalist teams developed their solutions with Canadian experts. The teams competed for a total of $50,000 in prizes and a chance to have their products developed by local business incubators.
First place was awarded to E-Nundation, which developed a tool for flood risk management and mapping. Their solution uses Environment and Climate Change Canada forecast data to help predict, analyze and visualize a given area’s risk of flooding. The team was awarded $25,000 for their creation and a place at Le Camp, a local start-up incubator.
“It’s been an incredible journey for us,” said E-Nundation’s Karem Chokmani, a professor in remote sensing and statistical hydrology at INRS University in Quebec. “We intend to build on our success here and do our part to drive positive environmental change for Lake Ontario, the City of Toronto and our country’s most vital resource: water.”
The AquaHacking 2018 champions from E-Nundation. (Photo submitted by AquaHacking)
Second place was awarded to the group behind WaterPuris for their method of breaking down water-based endocrine-disrupting compounds. Third place went to the team who developed M Power Software, a system that detects sewage overflow in real time.
In the end, all five finalists were given spots in local business incubators to help develop their technologies.
Since its inception, AquaHacking has engaged over 500 participants and developed 15 clean-tech solutions either on the market or in development. And the movement has sparked interest throughout North America.
“We’ve gotten calls from a number of watershed-focused organizations from across both Canada and the USA,” says Aarup. “I think people are really starting to see some of the benefit of approaching these issues in a different way.”
In response to a growing interest in watershed concerns across Canada and the US, AquaHacking will be scaling up to promote similar initiatives throughout North America.
“I can’t make any announcements just yet; we’re just finalizing some agreements, but you will see in 2019 … an event around the Great Lakes [and] St. Lawrence Basin as a whole,” Aarup says, “and now we’ve added on a couple of other regional challenges around other watersheds in Canada. We’re super excited about that.”
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