The challenge

Water is one of the most important substances on Earth and covers 70% of the planet. However, freshwater makes up a very small fraction with 97% being saline and ocean-based. While the amount of freshwater on the planet has remained fairly constant over time, the world’s population has exploded, meaning that freshwater is threatened by significant forces, like overdevelopment, polluted runoff, and global warming. 

The European Space Agency’s “Water Scarcity” Kick-Start offers support and funding to companies developing services to help alleviate water scarcity problems. 

What are we looking for?

We would like to see ideas covering the following topics submitted to the Water Scarcity Kick-Start:

Desalination plants

As water scarcity increases, desalination plants – which turn seawater into freshwater – are on the rise. While desalination plants can be vital in water-stressed countries with coastlines, challenges do exist. Desalination requires vast amounts of energy, can create significant greenhouse gas emissions, and can damage marine ecosystems by dumping highly concentrated brine into the sea. 

Space solutions to monitor and mitigate the environmental impact of desalination plants are needed. Solutions could involve monitoring the marine environment to propose regions of strong currents, so that the by-product can be expelled and dissipated quickly. Inland, a plant could evaporate water in pools and utilise the remaining salt and discharge elements (some contain precious elements like uranium). Applications to help plan, monitor and operate desalination plants would be beneficial.

Groundwater depletion

Groundwater is vital across the world, especially where surface water supplies are not available. As droughts shrink surface water in lakes, rivers and reservoirs, people increasingly depend on groundwater from aquifers (porous rocks and sediment saturated with groundwater). However, society is drawing down these groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates. Space applications to help critically assess the loss of storage capacity for given aquifers, determine the rate of groundwater depletion, and monitor infrastructure impacted by land subsidence (when soil collapses, compacts, and drops due to groundwater overuse) are needed.  

Digitising the water and wastewater industry

During wet times, it is essential to keep damage to a minimum by effectively controlling the surplus of water, and during dry times, it is key to distribute water optimally. Smart technology and space data could change conventional water and wastewater systems into instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent systems. Satellite applications to help remotely analyse situations by monitoring and measuring the water supply could be valuable in improving water revenue, supporting sustainable water production and recycling, and reducing operating costs. Furthermore, solutions to handle water usage peaks (e.g. a rush hour of people using water after work requiring large buffers, strong pumps, and a pipe network that can process millions of litres in a short amount of time) are needed.

Reducing water loss during distribution

Non-revenue water (NWR) is clean water, which is lost somewhere in the water distribution system, never reaching its destination. This means water not used or paid for, affecting local economies as well as local resources available. One of the primary causes of water loss is leaking pipes and equipment due to bursts or breaks. When a leak occurs, it can take weeks before it is noticed, and can be difficult to localise the exact problem area in a huge, wide-reaching network. To reduce water loses, satellite applications could be used to monitor landscapes and infrastructure, detect leaks, and help to repair seepages.

Supporting new farming techniques that use less water

Aeroponic and hydroponic systems do not require soil to grow plants and require up to 95% less water than traditional growing systems. Hydroponic systems essentially have the plant roots submerged in water, while aeroponic systems have roots that are exposed and sprayed with a mist containing nutrients. They reduce the need for pesticides and use much less fertiliser than traditional methods. Plants can be cultivated indoors and outdoors but rely on a controlled environment for temperature and lighting. In outdoor systems, sunlight is key to fuelling the plants’ development. Satellite applications to monitor and optimise outdoor aeroponic and hydroponic systems would be beneficial.

Applications for water harvesting

In arid and semi-arid regions, the scarcity of water can be alleviated by water harvesting. Water harvesting, or rainwater harvesting, is the activity of collecting and storing rainwater and surface runoff, so that it can be distributed. Satellite applications to optimise water harvesting techniques would be advantageous.

Data-driven water conservation applications

The use of satellite applications, smart devices, Internet of Things (IoT), and sensors could help large users of water (e.g. farmers, enterprises, etc.) to optimise water use, measure water saturation in soil, manage irrigation, and help ensure water is not overused on crops. 

Water purification applications

New space applications to optimise freshwater filtration and encourage utilisation and filtration of wastewater would be advantageous. 

About this kick-start

  • Teams will be invited to submit proposals between 20 September 2021 and 29 October 2021. 
  • After the deadline date, an ESA evaluation board will review the proposals and successful ideas will be selected. 
  • ESA Space Solutions will provide funding of 75% for a maximum of €60K to each winning team. 
  • Teams will use this funding to run 6-month feasibility studies. During this time, teams will investigate the technical feasibility, commercial viability, and market appetite for their idea.
  • Ideas must relate to services tackling issues related to water scarcity and must use an element of satellite/space data or technology.
  • How to Apply
  • To be eligible for funding, your team must be based in one of the following countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, or Sweden.

To apply

  • Register your team on esa-star
  • When the Kick-Start opens on 20 September 2021 visit esa-star Publication and search for this Water Scarcity opportunity to download the official competition documents.
  • Use the official documents to prepare your proposal.
  • Reach out to your National Delegate to inform them that you are applying for the Water Scarcity Kick-Start and to request a Letter of Authorisation. Contact details of each National Delegate can be found here. Please note that if your team is based in Luxembourg, Norway, Germany, or Ireland you do not have to contact your National Delegate; the Luxembourgish Norwegian, German and Irish Delegations have pre-authorised this Kick-Start opportunity. 
  • Submit your proposal via esa-star Tendering before the deadline on 29 October 2021

Key dates

  • A webinar is scheduled for Wednesday 15 September 2021 at 11:00 CEST (10:00 BST) to present this Kick-Start in more detail and answer any questions. Register here 
  • Opening date: 20 September 2021
  • Closing date: 29 October 2021

Visit the website for more details