The Water Abundance competition launched by XPrize in October represents new territory for the foundation, which runs million-dollar competitions designed to drive innovation and change the world. Not only did it announce its plans to tackle water security for the first time, but it did so in Mumbai, India, marking its first moves in a global expansion designed to tap into the developing world's brightest minds. For XPrize's Executive Director of Global Development & International Expansion, Zenia Tata (who herself hails from Mumbai), it might have meant even a little bit more. We chatted with the social entrepreneur about the water problems facing the world, and how her team hopes to use technology to bring the stuff of life to those in need.

With more than two decades of experience that includes business development for non-profits, teaching classes at esteemed institutes like MIT and Harvard Business School, and social work on issues as diverse as climate change and healthcare, there are many paths that could have led Tata to her role at XPrize. But as a trained pilot, it was her fascination with flight that first sparked her interest in the foundation during its early days, as it launched its first contest in 2004 – the US$10 million Ansari Prize, designed to advance private spaceflight.

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"I have been following the XPrize since the Ansari Prize because I'm a big aviation and space buff," Tata tells us. "I've been a pilot on and off and had my license since I was 19 years old. So I'd been following the Ansari Prize and saw in one of their newsletters they were actually looking to expand and India was one of the first targets, and being from India I had to apply for the job."

For the last three and a half years, Tata has been working to take XPrize global, working on projects in Singapore, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. By launching the $1.75 million Water Abundance Prize in India, which asks teams to develop a device that draws 2,000 liters (528 gal) of water from the atmosphere each day using only renewable energy and costing no more than two cents per liter (0.26 gal), she hopes to inspire a whole new breed of innovators that can help solve one of humanity's most pressing problems.

What role did you play in deciding to tackle water security for this prize?

ZT: I played a fairly big role, because I've been involved with those issues for a very long time and I love the XPrize approach of looking at scarcity and insecurity as opportunities for creating new ways of getting to abundance.

Water is so vital to life, and it's also such an amazing cross-cutting issue. It's a health issue, it's a pediatric health issue with 4,100 kids dying every day from water-borne diseases. It's an economic development issue with so many industries closing down because there isn't enough water, or on the flip side, polluting our freshwater sources.

Water is a gender issue with the 200 million hours a day that women and girls spend just hauling water around, putting themselves in danger. Imagine the productivity if they could do something else with those hours, like go to school. And water is a social political issue. At election time in most countries in the emerging world, water is kind of held as a pawn.

So water is just this amazing crosscutting issue and it is so vital to life on our planet, it is so vital to thriving on our planet and it's so vital for our planet's future survival. So it's an environmental issue as well.

Are we at a tipping point in terms of global water security, with things like climate change and an expanding global population?

ZT: Absolutely. What the experts tell us is that two out of three of us will be living in water-scarce regions by 2025. That's enormous. It is ominous.

There are three overarching issues with water. The first one is the lack of availability of freshwater resources. What does that mean? There is a lack of availability just because of our planet's geography. Ninety-six percent of our water is trapped in oceans. Two percent is trapped in ice caps and less than 2 percent is trapped in all the great rivers and reservoirs of the world.

Then, if you go one layer deeper, whatever water is available is not easily accessed by people. Even though freshwater may have once been easily accessible in a city like Mumbai because it is on an estuary of a river, with now close to 20 million people in the city of course that water is going to run dry. So access to water for many many reasons, social geographic, economic, is restricted.

And then whatever water can be accessed is often contaminated, by big industry and also just by overpopulation of humans and lack of infrastructure on the government's part, where they are dumping raw sewerage into our rivers or there is no regulation of industry where chemical pollutants are being randomly dissipated in our freshwater streams across the world.

So again, lack of availability of freshwater. Whatever is available is not easily accessed, and then what you can access is often contaminated. These three are the overarching issues with water today that are driving us towards water scarcity.

Why is XPrize uniquely positioned to tackle this problem?

ZT: At XPrize we love to take moonshots. We want to intervene when we think traditional industry and government players will not intervene and we believe that in water, there are many moonshots to be taken. This Water Abundance XPrize is in atmospheric water extraction. It is an industry that has been around, but not a lot has been done in that industry, and there are certainly no breakthroughs in that industry.

Atmospheric water extraction remains extremely energy-inefficient and therefore inefficient in terms of cost, because energy is very expensive. So it remains an industry that needs breakthroughs. Because the impact can be massive, we're trying to see if we can create breakthroughs in atmospheric water extraction using only renewable energy at an extraction point of about 2,000 liters a day.

How did you arrive at 2,000 L per day? What is the significance of that figure?

ZT: With a lot of research. Everything we do is grounded in very very deep research and science. By UN standards a household, or an individual, depending on where you are, should have about 35 to 50 L (9 to 13 gal) a day to be able to thrive. So we took that number and said alright, well most communities in the world, whether they are rural or urban, live in clusters.

So in most parts of India, Nairobi, Jakarta, Manila, any of these big cities, people are living in buildings. They are usually five or six-story buildings, and on top of the buildings there is typically a water tank. In the morning your water gets pumped into the tank from the municipal sources and then it is gravity-fed into pipes for daily use.

Now imagine a device that can sit on top of a tank on your terrace and just through gravity, feed it all day with water that it is extracted from the atmosphere. During the night, in fact, humidity rises and the wind rises, so wind energy could be harvested for night extraction of water if you don't have solar cells to hold the energy after dark. So there are a lot of different ways that we're trying to push innovation, and impact what we think is a market of over 600 million households across the world. And we're only talking about the emerging world. But how did we reach that figure?

We took the UN map of water scarcity, and on that we imprinted where the big populations are in the emerging world that are going to face that water scarcity, and then we also imprinted on that where the ideal humidity band is across our planet. And in perfect humidity, we could easily impact over 600 million households if it was affordable. But what does affordability mean? So we did deep research into about 40 or 50 countries and the price of water in rural and urban areas to see what municipal waters costs, what energy and solar cells cost, and that's how we came to that point of 2 cents a liter.

So it is fair to say that it's a rigorous scientific process?

ZT: Very rigorous. Our design process is anywhere from six, sometimes eight months for each prize.

In designing an XPrize, are there tools or elements that you leverage to bring out the very best ideas?

ZT: We call ourselves solution agnostic. We don't care how you do it. If you can meet our final parameters you can win the prize. And keeping it that wide open and making sure we're not too prescriptive in our guidelines is how we get the best ideas. If I told you to build me something that would be five meters by seven meters in length and height, and an approximate weight in kilograms that could hook up to a solar power system with a certain wattage, that's exactly what I'm going to get. So we have to be very careful with how we word our parameters and guidelines, to keep it open for the massive ability of people to innovate.

What does the future hold?

ZT: This particular prize is just the beginning. Water is an amazing domain and hopefully we'll have a great portfolio of prizes. So for example, the government of Singapore has funded the design of the desalination prize, so that will be the next prize. How do we take a moonshot in desal?

The government of Chile and the mining companies are also very interested in this particular issue, and every time I've been to Australia there has been tremendous interest in looking at desal because desal is not just for ocean water, it is much more for brackish water. With the whole internal stretch of Australia for example, where the entire continent is desert with a lot of brackish water, how can we turn those into freshwater resources?

Another very big interest of ours is to do more work in pollution. So whether it's ocean plastics or the cleanup of our rivers and freshwater resources, both are extremely interesting for us. So again, this is just the first, it's a small prize, it was us dipping our toe in the water, literally, but we hope that desalination will be something that we tackle in 2018. We hope that we can also get some pollution and water cleanup prizes going over the next 24 months.

Get involved

With US$1.75 million up for grabs, The Water Abundance XPrize, which sponsored by Tata Group and Australian Aid, is open for registration until March 31. Got a bright idea to pull water from thin air? You can register and find out more via the XPrize website.

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