Saturday 22 Jun 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on August 23, 2021 - August 29, 2021

The climate crisis can make the world seem bleak. 

Reducing plastic use and overconsumption may be good but more important systemic and wide-scale changes often seem like they are either happening slowly or not at all.

Initiatives such as net-zero goals — essentially to achieve a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those that are removed — are also given a long timeline, the year 2050.

The number of countries pledging to achieve net-zero emissions over the coming decades continues to grow, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency. But the pledges by governments so far, even if fully achieved, fall short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and “give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius”, the report adds.

Huge leaps in clean energy innovation and a rapid shift away from fossil fuels are crucial, it points out.

But, what else can be done?

"Because disasters do recur in other places over time, good disaster technology can be used again and again. This presents a huge … opportunity for the scaling-up of d-tech.” - Kanak

Technological innovation can help mitigate the risks associated with the climate. Not only can technology help shift the global market towards sustainability, but present technologies are already dealing with disaster prevention and relief efforts. However, these innovations need to have a supportive network and adequate funding to embrace their full potential.

Where does technology come in?

“Technology companies have been developing solutions that help mitigate the impact of disasters globally. Think about clean tech, or any technology that is emerging to address climate change,” Prudence Foundation chairman Donald Kanak tells Digital Edge.

There is an explosion of investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green hydrogen, he adds. 

“It starts with a big need, which we sometimes refer to as a pain point. This big need inspires creative individuals. Coupled with financial support and the right networks of collaborators, it helps create a technology solution that can be applied for good and at scale,” says Kanak.

Prudence Foundation has been focusing on disaster preparedness and relief since 2011, he adds. Asia is the world’s most disaster-affected region, with more than half of global natural disasters taking place in the region.

“Climate change is a global problem, but a lot of disasters — for example, floods, earthquakes or oil spills — are not. However, because disasters do recur in other places over time, good disaster technology (d-tech) can be used again and again. This presents a huge demand or opportunity for the scaling-up of d-tech,” Kanak continues.

D-tech refers to technology that can protect lives before, during and after natural disasters. The nature of most technology innovation may start out small, but when the right need and solution come together, it can reach a whole new level, he adds.

“We started the Safe Steps D-Tech Awards because we saw the potential in the many solutions that were being developed in different locations. Creating new networks of incubators, strategic partners and financial investors to support the innovators is the way to create more opportunities for small-scale ventures and new ideas to grow,” says Kanak.

The competition, to recognise the essential role that technology plays in natural disaster events, was held by a collaboration between Prudence Foundation, the community investment arm of Prudential in Asia and Africa, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IRFC) and Lenovo. 

The Stimson Center from the US and Singapore-based EcoWorth Tech are the winners of this year’s awards, both receiving a US$75,000 (RM318,163) grant each. 

“A d-tech unicorn (a company with a valuation of US$1 billion and above) could perhaps be defined as a company that saves US$1 billion of environmental damage — or, in human terms, saves 100,000 lives. We may or may not be able to see any d-tech unicorns in the near future, but I believe we are going to see the number of companies in this field grow, succeed and inspire others,” Kanak says.

The Mekong Dam Monitor

In the past 10 years, 83% of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by extreme weather and climate-related events such as floods, storms and heatwaves, according to a World Disasters Report by the IRFC.

"We’d love to find partners to expand the scope of the dams that we monitor. There are hundreds of transboundary rivers around the world or watersheds where these processes can be put to use.” - Eyler

“These extreme disasters have killed more than 410,000 people in the past 10 years, the vast majority in low- and lower-middle-income countries ... A further 1.7 billion people around the world have been affected by climate and weather-related disasters during the past decade,” the report says.

The Stimson Center, in partnership with Eyes on Earth, won the non-profit category. Its Mekong Dam Monitor is an online platform that uses remote sensing, satellite imagery and geographic information system (GIS) analysis to provide near-real-time reporting and data downloads across numerous previously unreported indicators in the Mekong Basin.

The platform is open-source and free to use on the Mekong Water Data Initiative website. The monitor helps communities prepare in advance of flooding events or water supply disruptions caused by upstream dam operations.

“In December 2013, an upstream dam in China released a massive amount of water, causing a flood to push downstream towards Thailand, hundreds of kilometres away. Overnight, the water level in Thailand, in the golden triangle, rose 3m unexpectedly without warning or notification,” Brian Eyler tells Digital Edge. Eyler is the co-lead for the Mekong Dam Monitor and director of the Southeast Asia programme at the Stimson Center.

The golden triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers.

“This caused a 10-day flood and millions of dollars in damage. Livestock was swept away, farmers’ assets were lost, and these things mean a lot particularly to cash-poor communities that rely on agricultural processes and fishing for their livelihood,” Eyler says.

“What we do is erase the possibility of that ever happening again — not the flood, but the lack of notification. We catch these changes 48 hours before they hit downstream and we provide local communities and governments downstream with enough time to adapt.”

The partnership (Stimson in Washington, DC, and Eyes on Earth in South Carolina) works with stakeholders on the ground to corroborate their findings and validate the 48-hour time period.

“We have to watch the river constantly through satellite imagery and data portals that show us the changes in river levels. If we see a 50cm change (up or down) within a 24-hour period, we issue an alert. Those alerts go to vulnerable communities, governments and the media at the same time.”

There are other services that the team provides on the platform, including weekly advisories, but the alerts for disaster risks and immediate response are the most valuable to local communities, Eyler says. 

“In the short term, we’re providing communities with time to adapt, to remove their boats from the river’s edge and avoid being near the river when there’s a notification that there’s a surge of water coming downstream. Also, just the preparation of what to expect tomorrow when they wake up and not to be surprised when the river drops a metre overnight. Crucially, we also let them know why this is happening.”

With this service, authorities downstream can now negotiate for a better share of water with less fluctuations and adverse effects from upstream countries, Eyler adds. “The monitor lets the authorities know where the water is, how much water there is and where it should be. This combination is powerful.”

In 2019, for example, the Mekong countries experienced a record historical drought during the wet season. “Upstream dams were restricting more water than ever before to charge reservoirs. This was the initial finding of the Eyes on Earth study that allowed us to work on the partnership,” says Eyler.

Upstream dams were exacerbating drought conditions downstream, when they could have released water and provided assistance to relieve the drought, he says. “This was a major revelation, but now we’re doing it every week. We’re showing how much is being restricted and how much is being released.

“Stakeholders have a much clearer picture of the river system, and how it is being operated and manipulated, and they can use this data to improve a more equitable share of water as well as protect the livelihoods of those who depend on the river.”

The majority of the reservoirs are located in very remote areas and, during the wet season, there would be a lot of cloud cover, he says. “So, cloud-piercing satellites are beneficial, as the radar allows us to see the water through clouds. If it was just an optical image, it wouldn’t be possible to see the river or the reservoir.”

All of the dams and reservoirs that the team monitors do not have available data about their operations. “As we’re doing this for 27 of the biggest dams in the area, all of a sudden, the region is going from zero to 100 with data about the most impactful dams,” he says.

The Mekong River Commission recently released a report calling for China and all Mekong countries to improve their data sharing because “the commission now has full knowledge that dams are abnormally changing the levels of the river. We can attribute this to the monitor,” Eyler says.

“We’d love to find partners to expand the scope of the dams that we monitor. There are hundreds of transboundary rivers around the world or watersheds where these processes can be put to use.

“There’s a market for insurance products as well, where governments can buy catastrophe bonds that are triggered when some of these alerts are issued. Not only can these communities be notified, but they also have some recourse for compensation, and responsibility can be assigned in a market-based way.”

The team plans to use the grant to localise its services and language interfaces for use across Southeast Asia, and has received about US$300,000 in funding. “I’m excited about the proliferation of online data tools. High-tech, wide-scope and low-cost tools allow more and more users to interpret data, and the notification and adaptation aspects can only improve over time,” says Eyler. 

"It is generally difficult to scale up waste-to-worth technology. To make a sizeable impact, such as with big clients with bigger water needs, a start-up needs to mature its technology enough to do a sizeable pilot.” - Stolz

Cleaning oil spills with waste-to-worth solutions

EcoWorth Tech, winner in the for-profit category, is a clean tech company that focuses on sustainable wastewater remediation and the circular economy.

The company’s carbon-fibre aerogel (CFA) sponge is made of low-cost natural materials such as waste biomass, cotton or waste paper. The reusable sponge can clean water after an oil spill and absorb oil of up to 190 times its own weight, mitigating the environmental impact of polluting industries.

Andre Stolz, its co-founder and CEO, is originally from Germany but has lived in Asia for 15 years. Having always had a passion for bringing science and innovation to life, he left his corporate job to work with co-founder Dr Bert Grobben to make a more lasting social impact, he tells Digital Edge.

“Basically, we have a solution to treat oily wastewater by removing the oil in a highly efficient manner. Also, through simple mechanical squeezing of the sponge, we can recuperate and reuse those absorbed organics. We can absorb a wide range of organics too, not just oil,” explains Stolz.

As the sponge reaches its end of life, applications in road construction or as cement additives are possible, effectively showcasing a waste-to-worth concept.

Five years ago, the team saw promising technology from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “During the same period, we were also experiencing a couple of oil spills such as one in the Gulf of Mexico. We thought the technology could make a difference, even though it was still in its early stage, pre-licensing,” Stolz says.

“We took the initiative to take this tech out of the university — at a very early stage, basically from publication only — and build a start-up around it. We found strong initial support from private investors, governments as well as industry partners to try out our technology.” Singapore focuses a lot on water treatment technology because of its scarcity of fresh water, and also the entrepreneurial ecosystem is quite supportive of early-stage entrepreneurs, Stolz adds.

An estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth and climate change by 2025, according to the United Nations.

“With our initial funding, we were able to find a team and find clients willing to collaborate with us for the pilot. As we received more grants, we used it for a bigger team and production equipment. Then we slowly matured the technology such as proof of concept, then, finally, product validation,” Stolz says.

It took the team five years from incorporating the company to finding its first paying customer in the oil refinery industry, he continues. 

“We had to go through the stage of scaling up the technology with our own resources. We had to procure certain equipment ourselves, scale up the technology, then test it out at clients’ wastewater facilities.”

Material innovation and maturing the technology takes a long time, he adds. To purchase, install and validate the equipment takes a while too. Another challenge is securing funding. “It is generally difficult to scale up waste-to-worth technology.

“To make a sizeable impact, such as with big clients with bigger water needs, a start-up needs to mature its technology enough to do a sizeable pilot. These solutions are also under immense pressure to reduce costs.

“Even though our product can be cost-effective in the long term, in the early stage and given the limited resources, the cost of operations and production is still fairly high. It is not at scale yet, where the materials can be produced in a cost-effective way.”

Usually, the initial funding is appropriate to get started with a small pilot. “However, there is a period in which it is harder to raise funds, like the stage we are at now. Conducting bigger pilots would require more material production. We need more equipment and, potentially, a bigger team, hence more funds.”

Commonly, start-ups also have to show high revenue to attract investors. For start-ups that cannot self-fund, this is not possible. The team’s main purpose now is to find more customers to invest in production capacity, so that it can produce more materials and make a bigger impact.

“We want to become the preferred waste-to-worth solutions provider. For us to achieve the full circular economy approach, we need partnerships. We are looking for partners as well as funding, and support in any way.”

The total amount invested in EcoWorth so far is about S$1 million (RM3.1 million). “We are currently raising S$500,000 for 10% equity funding,” says Stolz.

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