Promoting unconventional water resources and technologies for water-scarce areas

This project builds on a previous project, “Unconventional Water Resources”, to deepen and promote understanding of unconventional water resources.

Date Published
4 Aug 2020
Expected Start Date
01 Aug 2020
Expected End Date
31 Dec 2023
Project Type
Research and Capacity Development
Project Status

Water scarcity is recognized as a key challenge to sustainable development and as a potential cause of social unrest and of conflict within and between countries. Water scarcity also impacts traditional seasonal human migration routes and, together with other water insecurity factors, could reshape migration patterns. The stark fact is that conventional water provisioning approaches that rely on snowfall, rainfall, river runoff, and easily accessible groundwater are not enough to meet growing freshwater demand in arid and semi-arid areas. Water-scarce countries need a radical re-thinking of water resource planning and management that includes the creative exploitation of a growing set of viable but unconventional water resources for food production, livelihoods, ecosystems, climate change adaption, and sustainable development and conservation. 

Unconventional water resources are by-products of specialized processes, may need suitable pre-use treatment, require pertinent on-farm management when used for irrigation, or result from specific techniques to collect/access water. Key unconventional water resources include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Atmospheric moisture harvesting such as cloud seeding and fog water collection

  • Micro-scale capture of rainwater where it would otherwise evaporate

  • Groundwater confined in onshore deep geological formations or in offshore aquifers

  • Water from urban areas including municipal wastewater and stormwater

  • Residual water from agriculture, such as agricultural drainage water

  • Ballast water held in tanks and cargo holds of ships to increase stability during transit Icebergs collected from arctic regions and transported to water-scarce areas

  • Desalinated seawater and brackish groundwater

This project builds on the previous UNU-INWEH project “Unconventional Water Resources” (Pelikan Code: 9621), which was implemented from 1 July 2017 to 31 July 2020. In the previous project, the following major activities were undertaken, and outputs produced: 

  • Major Events/Workshops/Sessions: Organization of a session ‘Journey to a world free of untreated wastewater’ in partnership with UNU-FLORES, IWMI, and Turkish Water Institute at the 2017 World Water Week, Stockholm, Sweden; organization of a session ‘Looking beyond conventional water resources to address global water scarcity’ in partnership with UNOSD, FAO, and UNESCO at the 2018 World Water Week, Stockholm, Sweden; participation in the expert consultation on addressing the challenges to global monitoring of SDG target 6.3, organized by UN-Habitat and WHO, March 2018, Switzerland; organization of an expert consultation meeting on unconventional water resources, Nov 2019, Madrid, Spain; organization of a session ‘Unconventional water resources in dry areas for sustainable development’ in partnership with UNOSD, and Korea Environment Corporation at the Korea International Water Week, September 2019, Daegu, Republic of Korea; participation in the first meeting of International Standard Organization (ISO) group for developing ISO 14002-2 "Environmental management systems — Water", January 2020, London; organization of 3 webinars and 10 presentations at international conferences/workshops. Journal Articles: Fog water collection: Challenges beyond technology (Water 10:372); High-magnesium waters and soils: Emerging environmental and food security constraints (Science of the Total Environment 642: 1108-1117); Agricultural water pollution: Key knowledge gaps and research needs (Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 36:20-27); The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook (Science of The Total Environment 657: 1343-1356); Gender and community mainstreaming in fog water collection systems (Water 10: 1472); Groundwater irrigation-induced soil sodification and response options (Agricultural Water Management 215: 74-85); Global and regional potential of wastewater as water, nutrient, and energy source (Natural Resources Forum 44: 40-51).

  • UN-Water Task Force on Unconventional Water Resources: Coordination of the UN-Water Task Force on unconventional water resources in partnership with FAO, UNCCD, UNDP, UNESCO, UNEP, and IWMI; UN-Water Analytical Brief on Unconventional Water Resources.

  • Project Products in Media: Some project-led products received substantial attention in print and electronic media; for example (1) the publication on the state of desalination and brine production was highlighted in media such as BBC, National Geographic, Science News, Scientific American, The New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Daily Mail Online, El País, and Le Figaro, among others with coverage in 24 languages and 85 countries along with 1,172 stories and highlights in online news sites with a combined potential reach of more than 1.35 billion; and (2) the publication on valuable resources embedded in municipal wastewater was highlighted in publications and media such as Science Magazine, Deutschlandfunk (German National Radio), Spanish Newswires EFE and Europa Press, Indo-Asian News Service (India), Triple Pundit (USA), and the Climate News Network (UK), among others with coverage in 7 languages and 29 countries along with 227 stories and highlights in online news sites with a combined potential reach of more than 175 million.

The current phase of the project (August 2020 to December 2021 and its extension until December 2023) aims to build on the work in the previous phase to undertake a range of activities and outputs, but not limited to the following: 

  • An in-depth analysis of the thematic focus and timeline of the research conducted on different aspects of fog water collection by presenting its research history, segregated by decade since 1980, as well as presenting examples of functional systems of fog water collection – ‘Bright Spots’ – along with specific information on each example's critical technical and operational aspects. Output: Journal Article.

  • Online course on unconventional water resources for water professionals and postgraduate students with interests in addressing water scarcity to (1) develop key concepts around unconventional water resources and their applications; and (2) prioritize different types of unconventional water resources for specific situations and environments. Output: Online course as part of the UNU-INWEH’s Water Learning Center.

  • A comprehensive assessment of water quality by analyzing water quality data of more than 600 samples from different parts of the world to revisit irrigation water quality guidelines developed in the 1980s; and propose changes to water quality guidelines based on recent research and practice. Output: Journal Article.

  • A macro-scale study investigating population-driven water scarcity while considering environmental requirements; water resources per capita at the national level for 180 countries around the globe; water trends for countries within different global regions and across income categories; and projecting water resources trends until 2030 and 2050 while providing insights into the response options promoting the efficient use of available water resources and water resources augmentation to support freshwater ecosystems and growing human demand. Output: Journal Article.

  • A comprehensive outlook of all major types of unconventional water resources to question the cycle of repetitive conventional approaches in managing scarce water resources in dry areas of the world and make a case for the creative exploitation of a growing set of viable unconventional water resources for food production, livelihoods, ecosystems, climate change adaption, and sustainable development. Output: Book on all major types of unconventional water resources to be published by an international publisher, Springer.

  • A macroscale study to (1) assess the economics of the global journey to a world achieving SDG 6.3.1 by 2030 and seeing the world at large free of untreated wastewater by 2050; (2) project the scale of investments needed in different regions and countries within different economic status; (3) provide insights into an enabling environment to promote wastewater treatment as an opportunity in support of the cost-effective recovery of valuable resources as well as protection of environment and health. Output: Journal Article.

  • A desk study showcasing the examples of adaptation efforts to water scarcity in areas where gains in water productivity can be derived from inter-sectoral water reuse and wastewater-freshwater swaps, complementing other water scarcity coping strategies (water savings, long-distance transfer, desalination). Such examples are expected to promote water reuse to free up freshwater for higher-value use, increase climate resilience and water productivity. Output: Journal Article.

  • As the area under untreated or partly treated wastewater irrigation continues to exceed the area under planned use of adequately treated (reclaimed) wastewater in the Global South, this study comprehensively reviews the implementation challenges to WHO guidelines for safe wastewater use in agriculture. These guidelines are expected to promote the safe and productive use of wastewater. Output: Journal Article.

  • A desk study based on data and literature collection and synthesis to make an unbiased comprehensive analysis of the state of the bottled water industry globally, primarily its environmental and social impacts and associated benefits. Output: Journal Article or UNU-INWEH Report or Policy Brief.

  • Analysis of the intersections between water quality and gender by examining how water quality may differ between genders in terms of health, living, and social impacts as well as linkages between SDG 5 and SDG 6. Output: Journal Article.

  • Documenting small-scale unconventional technologies available for potable water provision to communities and areas where local freshwater supplies are not available or not enough to fulfill potable water needs. Output: Journal Article or UNU-INWEH Report.

  • Assessment and tradeoffs of using desalinated water for different types of agricultural production systems. Output: Journal Article or UNU-INWEH Report.

  • Collection and analysis of data sets to undertake a study on the global, regional, and river basin potential of agricultural drainage water. Output: Journal Article or UNU-INWEH Report.

  • Communicating project-related findings and accomplishments via presentations and sessions at scientific meetings and international fora as well as through opinion editorials, blogs, and short articles.

This project supports UNU-INWEH’s mission to help resolve pressing regional and global water challenges that are of concern to the United Nations, its Member States, and their people. In addition, the project is associated with several action areas highlighted in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, particularly ‘Environment and Climate Action’.