07/31/2015 09:12 EDT | Updated 07/31/2016 05:59 EDT

Technological Solutions for a Thirsty World

Getty Images/OJO Images RF

When Archie Barrie heard pounding on his metal roof, the terrified child bolted into his mother's arms. The two-year-old boy, who lives on a farm in central Australia, had never heard or seen rain before.

Australia has endured chronic droughts for 20 years. Some areas haven't seen a drop of rain in years. California is in its fourth year of a record-breaking dry spell. And in June, scientists at the University of California studied NASA satellite data and made a terrifying discovery -- eight of the world's 37 biggest underground aquifers, which provide water for some of the most arid regions on earth, are in severe danger of running dry. Five more aquifers are only barely keeping up with demand.

Last week, we wrote about the water issues facing Canada -- such as the droughts in western Canada -- and the need for Canadians to reconnect with water. But no matter how bad our water woes are, Canada is a drenched paradise compared to other regions.

Access to water is one of the biggest challenges facing the planet today.

We have to address the underlying causes, like climate change, overconsumption, waste and pollution. However, that alone won't overcome the problem -- not in time for millions of people in need of fresh water. Fortunately there's some incredible technology emerging to recycle or create new sources of water--dowsing rods for the 21st Century.

Seventy-one per cent of the world's surface is covered by water. But the vast majority of that is ocean--salt water we can neither drink nor use to irrigate our crops. Technology to take salt out of water has existed for a long time. But the different methods -- boiling water in a vacuum, or running it at high pressure through membranes in a process called "reverse osmosis "-- consumes massive amounts of energy.

A promising partnership between California's Humboldt State University and the University of Southern California has come up with a system where salt water under high pressure drives electricity-generating turbines. The salt water provides the power for its own desalination process, reducing energy use by 30 per cent.

But desalination is only a solution for countries with access to an ocean. What about arid land-locked nations, such as in central Africa?

Anyone who's seen Star Wars remembers Luke Skywalker tending his uncle's moisture vaporators -- machines that sucked water from the air. It's one technology that's made the leap from science fiction to reality. Eole Water, a French company, invented a wind turbine that powers a cooler compressor. The compressor then harvests water from condensation in the atmosphere. The device can produce 60 to 100 litres of water per hour out of thin air.

Technology not only creates new water sources, it can also reduce waste, helping recycle the water we use. We were astounded when Alex and Tyler Mifflin -- TV Ontario's "Water Brothers"--told us that Israel reclaims 75 to 80 per cent of its industrial and household wastewater. Israel invested heavily in developing and improving water-cleaning technology from ultraviolet filters to centrifuges. (Canadian businesses and politicians might want to note that Israel is raking in $1.5 billion a year exporting this technology.)

In Canada, Calgary-based Livestock Water Recycling (LWR) Inc. is making waves with technology that recovers water from farm animal waste. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the world's water use. The LWR system extracts and purifies water from manure so it can be reused on farms. The by-product is a liquid fertilizer that's less environmentally damaging than applying manure directly.

There are many more technological advances out there than we can't fit in here - -from irrigation smart metres and micro-irrigation systems to nano-filters. With the water challenges facing the world, they must become a priority for research and investment.

Humans can't summon clouds to release rain, but we can put our wits together to ensure that every child has access to clean water.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


Photo gallery
What A Drought Looks Like
See Gallery