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Entrepreneurs can help in the quest for safe drinking water

Zero Mass Water is just one of the innovators providing access to safe, drinking water off the grid.

A recent article in the Asia & The Pacific Policy Society policy forum, "Implementing the human right to water: Turning the taps on better global water policy (PDF download)," highlights the urgent need to solve the lack of access to safe drinking water (the subject of Sustainable Development Goal 6).

The authors (water policy experts Asit Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada) call attention to a discussion launched by the Pontifical Academy of the Vatican, which asserts that "access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights." 

The authors compare this very clear declaration to less precise language calling for "improved sources of water," a catchphrase used for decades by international water organizations, including the World Health Organization, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund and United Nations Environment Program, as well as by multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right and it is our responsibility to ensure we deliver on this right.

As Biswas and Tortajada correctly highlight, the notion of "improved sources" doesn't always describe the quality of the water. International organizations consistently have used these three terms — "improved sources," "clean" and "safe" water — interchangeably. As a result, the world believes that having improved sources of water means safe water, but this is clearly not true.

Conservatively, 663 million people do not have access to safe water, as claimed by WHO and UNICEF. Many water practitioners believe this figure is understated, in part because about 4 billion people live in water-scarce and water-stressed regions of the world.

While centralized water treatment systems have served large populations well, and continue to do so, we need radically different delivery technologies. To ensure that we deliver universal access to safe drinking water we must deploy 21st-century technology solutions such as off-grid, decentralized and distributed water systems that provide a broader menu of options to actually ensure universal access to safe drinking water and not just "improved sources" of water.

In addition to new technologies, we desperately need successful entrepreneurs from outside the water sector. Business as usual, the same stakeholders with the same set of solutions, will not achieve universal access to safe drinking water. Instead, we need new voices and new solutions.

An example of innovative technology from a "water outsider" is Zero Mass Water. The company's team asked the question, "You own the air you breathe by simply taking a breath; why not own the water you drink?" Then, it came up with a solution — using air moisture capture technology and solar power to supply individuals with safe drinking water off the grid.

Zero Mass Water's technology, called Source, has been deployed in the Middle East, Mexico, Latin America and the western part of the United States. The company isn't simply building incremental improvements on top of centralized water treatment and distribution systems, it is leveraging leading-edge material science research and solar technology for an entirely different approach.

We need more of the honesty of Biswas and Tortajada coupled with an outside view of technology innovation. There is no reason for us to tolerate the appalling lack of access to safe drinking water. Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right, and it is our responsibility to ensure we deliver on this right.

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