Essay | As our planet warms, artificial intelligence could help quench the thirst of billions facing water scarcity

Essay | As our planet warms, artificial intelligence could help quench the thirst of billions facing water scarcity

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Business & Economics, Climate, Policy, Water

Scientists and technologists worldwide are embracing their entrepreneurial spirits to help bridge the science-tech divide and secure a more sustainable, water-abundant future for all. Their goal? Harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help conserve our planet’s precious water resources.

In the outskirts of Mumbai, one of India’s busiest cities, Krunal Patel and his business partner, Amrit Om Nayak, survey manufacturing equipment in what otherwise appears to be an unassuming factory. In reality, this factory is anything but modest—it is the home to Indra Water, a startup Patel and Nayak launched in 2018 to help address water scarcity in India and around the world. Since it was founded, Indra Water has bloomed into a successful business, receiving awards in water excellence and even being profiled in top magazines like Forbes. And it’s no wonder that Indra has accrued such rapid success and acclaim in the industry; a closer look at Indra’s business model reveals it’s filling a crucial gap in the water industry.

Indra Water is implementing decentralized wastewater treatment with the ability to recover up to 99% of wastewater for reuse. Not only that, but Indra requires 25% less energy to operate than conventional solutions and allows manufacturers to save on both operating costs and factory space (Indra Water).

New technologies, new solutions

The company has also recognized the potential of improving wastewater treatment through artificial intelligence, a technology that simulates human intelligence, thereby allowing machines to learn from experience and recognize “patterns in data” to perform tasks. The transformative power of AI lies in its ability to digest incredibly vast amounts of data, or “big data,” to problem solve with more efficiency than humans. In Indra’s case, AI enabled the company to improve water use efficiency far more than its non-AI competitors, thereby playing a critical role in water innovation.

Indra is by no means an anomaly in its employment of AI in the water space. In fact, it represents just one of many startups harnessing the power of AI to pioneer new solutions for a water-scarce world. Indra is also a testament to the promise that budding entrepreneurs can succeed and even thrive in the water space—the demand for new technologies has never been higher.

In Argentina, for example, Dr. Birungi Korutaro, whose background is in agribusiness, founded Kilimo, a marketplace that uses AI to empower farmers to optimize their irrigation strategies and sell water offsets to companies. Through AI, Kilimo has been able to computerize a sustainable water marketplace while protecting the privacy and security of farmers using the platform, an outcome that would not be possible through other technologies. So far, Kilimo has already made strides in water conservation, saving 72 billion liters of water in Latin America and helping farmers in six countries reduce their water usage by up to 30%.

NatureDots, a company using “DeepTech,” a technology with magnified computing power, to better manage freshwater fisheries is another example of a business built upon AI for nature-based solutions. NatureDots employs AI to ensure healthy water bodies by identifying ecological stressors in communities and assessing deteriorating water bodies. Because of AI, NatureDots can harness big data to more accurately and efficiently support fish farmers, water managers, and the ecosystem more broadly.

Mobilizing the power of artificial intelligence

As Indra Water’s team puts it on their website, a majority of typical solutions to water scarcity challenges require “huge capital investments, are difficult to operate, [and] require [a] huge [carbon] footprint.” AI-based solutions can help alleviate these challenges by mobilizing the power of big data; such solutions can also help eliminate many of the socioeconomic disparities that more conventional solutions exacerbate.

Desalination plants, for instance, convert seawater into freshwater on a large scale but are wildly expensive to construct. Similarly, drip irrigation, a micro-irrigation system that saves water and nutrients, is expensive for farmers to implement and governments to subsidize. While both desalination and drip irrigation are powerful tools, their expense means they are not equally accessible to all. On the other hand, the tools that smaller startups like Indra, Kilimo, and NatureDots offer may be more cost-effective because they minimize the need for human labor.

Luckily, the potential of startups using AI to transform the water sector and deliver clean, safe, and affordable water to communities around the world is increasingly being recognized by governments, nonprofit organizations, and large philanthropic groups globally. Even so, many entrepreneurs worry that this progress may not be coming fast enough. Despite the increasing demand for technological solutions to water scarcity, many up-and-coming startups lack the funding and influence to spread their tools rapidly. The adoption of technological solutions, even the most cost-effective, is often far too slow-paced during a time when speedy and widespread deployment of technologies for climate adaptation has never been more urgent.

Unfortunately, receiving funding for implementation and encouraging widespread adoption of a product is sometimes even more challenging than the creation of a product itself. Even as Indra has seen incredible success in the water industry, it has yet to spread to other regions outside of Asia. Likewise, Kilimo currently only operates in six countries in Latin America and NatureDots in two countries.

A race against time

Understandably, scientists and technologists working on water yearn for their solutions to reach communities quickly and efficiently. By increasing awareness of the power of artificial intelligence and encouraging funding for innovation and implementation, stakeholders in government and philanthropy have the opportunity and power to help curb the global water crisis. Investing in innovative water solutions is also more than just charity: it may also benefit the investors themselves, who stand to profit from being the first to enter a new and blossoming market.

The potential of existing AI to curb water scarcity warrants that this implementation stage come at a faster rate. Why? Although 70% of our earth’s surface is covered in water, only 2.5% of that constitutes freshwater. Within that percentage, only 3% of freshwater is accessible to humans. In 2023, as populations are booming and climate change is making dry regions of the world even drier, our global water crisis is only worsening. In other words, without rapid and transformative action, water supplies will likely only continue to diminish in the future.

Companies, philanthropists, and large organizations hold immense power to transform the water space into one that incentivizes technological creativity. Increasing funding to early and mid-stage startups is critical to promoting a more technologically-savvy and sustainable future for all. Water is a human right, a basic necessity that everyone relies on to survive. When our collective human actions mean that some may lose access to clean water, those with power have a unique responsibility to take action. With funding as the main barrier to technological progress in the industry, encouraging companies and philanthropists to foot the bill is of the utmost importance. Because now, more than ever, every drop counts.

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