Solving the Water Crisis Drop by Drop

With a rooftop rain-collection system that costs USD 500 per household, Mexican NGO Isla Urbana is trying to fix the water shortage in Mexico City. More such smallscale projects are needed to address a big problem.

By Angel Plascencia & Natasha Silva

In Latin America, 77 million people lack access to safe water, according to the World Water Council. The region's massive megacities, like Brazil's Sao Paulo, with more than 20 million inhabitants, face the challenge of developing a solution for the water crisis knocking on their door. In the case of Mexico City, in 10 years the water supply in the city's aquifer may be exhausted. It is one of the biggest cities in the world, and without groundwater it would struggle to provide water to its more than 20 million inhabitants. The city has already sunk 10 meters in a century because of the over-exploitation of its aquifers. Amazingly, around 40% of the water that is distributed to this labyrinth of pipelines is lost to leaks. This is a water crisis that organisations like Isla Urbana (Urban Island) are trying to address with a small, simple solution that costs only USD 500. If every home in the city were to install their system, 50% of the water supply that the metropolis needs could be supplied by the rain. "It's an ambitious project. We are trying to improve the rainwater harvesting, to have an alternative for the water problems we have in Mexico City." says Hiram Garcia, one of Isla Urbana's founders. "As an NGO, we look for resources to build and install systems for free to poor people; and as a corporation we are offering services to other companies."

1,700 systems installed

Isla Urbana is made up of six young professionals from different disciplines. There is an anthropologist; a specialist in urbanism, two industrial designers and two engineers, one civil and the other environmental. This last one is Garcia, one of the Leaders of Tomorrow attending the 45th St. Gallen Symposium. Isla Urbana's system uses water run-off from the roofs, pre-treats it and then stores the collected liquid in an existing cistern, or the organisation builds an alternative storage cistern. The water is disinfected and filtered during pumping for final distribution. That's why each system costs just USD 500. They work principally in the neighbourhoods and areas in the south of Mexico City, where water supply issues are the most pressing, according to Garcia. Garcia says that they are spreading in 15 states all around Mexico. They have installed 1,700 systems so far. Isla Urbana is not alone, of course. Many ideas are emerging to tackle water shortages. Orbital Systems, a Swedish start-up that began with a focus on space technology, developed what they like to call "the shower of the future." Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, the Chief Executive and Co-Founder, says that the technology they developed is able to save thousands of litres of water per year and up to 80% on energy. By using a system that constantly recycles the water that originally would go down the drain, they also guarantee that the water is cleaner.

960,000 litres saved
"The showers are connected to the cloud, so you can see your savings in your phone. And it is really cool to see the savings just going up", says Mahdjoubi. He mentions that when the shower was just a prototype, they were able to save more than 100,000 litres of water in less than two months. On the Orbital Systems website there is a scale of how much water the project has saved so far: more than 960,000 litres.

The shower of the future is in its commercialisation phase, sold only in Sweden. It is quite expensive - between EUR 3,200 and 4,000 - and as such will address the needs of wealthier countries with water shortages rather than places like Mexico or Brazil. For Mahdjoubi, there are three markets that stand out: "Germany and Denmark, which have the highest water and energy prices in the world. Then we have California, where there has been a huge drought. And then we would have the Middle East, where there are countries that are starting to desalinate water." For Mahdjoubi, it is a real pleasure to see a project that started as purely theoretical actually work and contribute to solving a problem. "I get a kick out of working on something that could change the world. What I look forward to is that in the future, we look back on how we used to do things and laugh," he says, with a smile.

"I get a kick out of working on something that could change the world." - Mehrdad Mahdjoubi

Growth - The good, the bad, and the ugly will be debated in the light of the 46th&nbspSt.&nbspGallen Symposium&nbsp(11-13&nbspMay&nbsp2016).