20th Greenovation Forum Tackles Water Cooperation

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

San Diego, Calif., May 9, 2013  Acknowledging that “water cooperation is an instrument to world peace,” experts in academia, industry and the non-profit sector gathered at UC San Diego recently for the 20th Greenovation Forum, one of a series of lectures and workshops that aim to inspire innovation, dialogue, research projects and action in the green technology sector.

Jordan Mellul
Jordan Mellul

UC San Diego's Sustainability Solutions Institute (SSI) and its Qualcomm Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology partnered on the April 10 forum, which was held in honor of the United Nations’ 2013 International Year of Water Cooperation. 

In a video address that was screened at the forum, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon noted that one-third of the world’s peoples already already live in water-starved areas. He warned that climate change and growing populations will present new pressures on the world’s water supply.

Following the video was a presentation by Jordan Mellul of the San Diego-based Nika Water Organization (a bottled water company). Mellul made the case for 'social entrepreneurship' as a way to build equality and sustainability into water cooperation.

Michael Preziosi
Michael Preziosi

Social entrepreneurship, as Mellul described it, is a hybrid of the for-profit and non-profit business models. For-profit companies donate when they can, said Mellul, but their primary goal is to create value for shareholders. Nonprofits are program- and cause-driven and rely on fundraising.

Social entrepreneurism, on the other hand, “creates the sustainability of donation income plus providing a triple bottom line” that favors people, the planet and profit.

Nika (which means ‘to give’) donates 100 percent of its proceeds to water sustainability projects around the world and is 100-percent carbon neutral. It also has a business plan that factors in growth as part of the cost of doing business and keeps overhead as low as possible (nine people run national sales and the company lacks a formal headquarters). 

“Part of the solution (to the world’s water problem) is being social entrepreneurs, but the greatest mistake of social entrepreneurs is to devote 80 percent of their energy to the cause, and 20 percent to the business side of things," he added. "We realized it has to be the opposite. Without the foundation of the business we can’t do anything good for anybody.”

Doing good for others is also the motivation behind Dr. Michael Preziosi’s work at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, only he focuses on water cooperation from an infectious disease perspective. Preziosi noted that economic water scarcity doesn’t necessarily mean that water is physically scarce — it can merely mean that a region has made very little investment into obtaining and delivering available water. Such decisions have contributed to some alarming statistics: More than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene related issues, with cholera being the most deadly waterborne disease. 

“This is the equivalent of a jumbo jet of children crashing every four hours," said Preziosi. "And I say children because those who die are usually children.”

The statistics go on: According to Preziosi, water issues claim more lives per year than guns claim in wars, and that’s not counting those who suffer from poor quality of life because of a lack of accessible water.  “There are 800 million people living in Africa and 300 million of them do not have access to high quality water,” he added. “We all hear stories about women walking six hours a day just to get water, and some of them suffer skeletal damage from lifetime of carrying heavy jugs on their heads.”

Preziosi also noted that more people around the world have access to cell phones than have access to toilets — but those cell phones, ironically, might have the power to improve accessibility to safe, clean drinking water. Albert Yu-Min Lin, co-director of the Qualcomm Institute’s Distributed Health Laboratory, spoke at the forum about a project he is leading that will put low-cost water-quality measurement devices in the hands of people living in areas with drinking water that is polluted with heavy metals and other toxins. 

Albert Yu-Min Lin
Albert Yu-Min Lin

Using the system, called OASIS, individuals who need to know if their water source is safe to drink on a given day can collect the data locally and then, through their cell phone network, populate a publicly accessible digital map with the data.  Lin and his team expect to implement the tool in the Gobi region of Mongolia, a country that is simultaneously experiencing a rapid decline in surface water resources and an increase in gold mining activity, which contaminates water supplies with mercury, lead, cyanide and other compounds. Lin reported that 82 percent of people living in the area of a single mine in Mongolia had symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

“People don’t need to be convinced to use their phones as sensors when the sensing is to protect them from water quality issues,” said Lin. “The heavy lifting is not so much on the sensing anymore. It’s on the computation,” due to the resulting ‘data avalanche.’

Hallie Tamez
Hallie Tamez

The forum concluded with a talk by Associate Director of Development for WaterAid, Hallie Tamez. Tamez, who said her goal was to “put a human face on the water crisis,” told a story about a Nepalese baby named Benita who had been nurtured back to life from malnourishment only to die a few months later from a waterborne illness. Benita’s story inspired Tamez and her organization to work on a community-led project in Nepal that takes advantage of the region’s mountainous terrain and a gravity-flow system to pipe clean water from mountain sources to taps.

“These types of projects are empowering for the community, and particularly women, because women are the primary water-carriers in all of these environments,” said Tamez. “Close to 800 million people around the world live without access to safe water. That’s more than twice the population of the U.S. But experts also agree that much of today’s water and sanitation crisis is solvable.”

And also economically profitable, she noted, adding that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, $4 is returned to the community. 

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

Sustainability Solutions Institute


Distributed Health Lab