Workshop on Nanotechnology and the Global Challenge of Access to Clean Water (Copenhagen, 25 September 2008)


Workshop report

This workshop (click here for the agenda) took place at the Nanotech Northern Europe Conference in Copenhagen in September 2008. It was attended by researchers from universities and industry, policy makers, industry and WPN delegates. The aim of the workshop was to increase awareness and promote dialogue, networking, coordinated policy initiatives and fact-finding related to the opportunities and challenges of nanotechnology to contribute to the purification of water. Other work on the global challenge of water taking place at the OECD (see and elsewhere is addressing the issue of its financing.

Purified, clean water is rapidly becoming a scarce resource for socio-economic developments globally. Megatrends driving the economics of clean water relate to population growth, increasing demand for energy, pollution, and climate change. Population growth is increasing the demand for water as a major input for agriculture while the energy sector already now is one of the major users of clean water in the developed world. Meanwhile climate change and drought are compounding the problems especially of developing countries. Worldwide 1.2 billion people lack access to sufficient amounts of clean water, 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation. This combination is the single largest cause of diseases and deaths in the world, accounting for approximately 3.4 million deaths annually.

While over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water most of it is unusable for consumption, especially to meet human needs. Freshwater lakes, rivers, ice and snow, and underground aquifers hold only 2.5% of the world’s water, while saltwater oceans and seas contain the remaining 97.5%. Water as a resource is not currently well managed and is not financed as a priority resource. Water purification techniques are relatively expensive, increase stress on watersheds and the environment, and are not readily transferable to the developing world. Many existing techniques are very energy-intensive.


Emerging nanotechnologies, notably in the field of filtration and desalination, catalysts, new materials and sensors, may offer prospects of improving this situation. Analysts, scientists and technologists, as well as watersuppliers are increasingly pointing to the opportunities that nanotechnology hold for the provision of affordable and efficient new water purification techniques that may ease the accessibility problem. However, the development, commercialisation and diffusion of nanotechnology also faces many challenges, some of which might be even more pronounced in the context of water.


These were some of the issues highlighted by the presentations and discussed at the workshop. Key issues included:

  • The importance of communication and collaboration between stakeholders (business, non-governmental organisations, governments, entrepreneurs) – “The bigger the team working together, the greater the chance of finding the right answer and success”.
  • The need for commercialisation to bring the laboratory work into the market through sustained efforts of researchers, funders and industry;
  • The importance of applying the solutions we have, even if they only bring small improvements and not just waiting for leading edge solutions; and
  • The need to do fieldwork in developing countries to optimise the use of technologies including nanotechnology.