Pioneering water solutions for the world

Over the past decade, eight scientists and organisations have been honoured with the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize for their breakthroughs in water innovation. Here’s how the prize continues to benchmark the best work worldwide in improving the supply, quality and safety of water.

Many governments have made great strides in fighting cholera, an infectious disease that causes severe diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration and even death, thanks to the work of American microbiologist Rita Colwell.

In the 1970s, she found that the bacterium that causes cholera can occur naturally in aquatic environments associated with plankton, even though it was thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside of a human host.

In the 1980s, her laboratory also discovered that bacteria can be alive and cause harm even though they cannot be cultured, contrary to popular belief at the time. This breakthrough showed that the methods used then to determine the safety of water were inadequate, changing the world’s understanding of clean water and pushing governments to improve those methods.

For her work, Prof Colwell, who is a distinguished university professor at both the University of Maryland at College Park and John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, was awarded the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

Now awarded once every two years in the lead-up to the biennial Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize honours outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving the world’s water challenges through innovative technologies, programmes or policies. Each laureate receives $300,000, a certificate and a gold medallion, and delivers the Water Lecture at the SIWW.

“I am truly honoured to be this year’s recipient of one of the most prestigious global water accolades, and I am confident that the pioneering spirit and innovative mindset represented by the prize will further encourage future generations of talents to realise our shared goal of providing access to safe water for all,” she said.

Shining a spotlight on water issues

Since the prize’s inception in 2008, there have been eight laureates: Dr Andrew Benedek (2008), Professor Gatze Lettinga (2009), the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in China (2010), Dr James Barnard (2011), Professor Mark van Loosdrecht (2012), the Orange County Water District in California in the United States (2014), Professor John Anthony Cherry (2016), and Prof Colwell.

Several laureates said that the prize has not only helped them to further their research, but has shone a critical spotlight on the world’s water problems and solutions.

At a time when the centre of global water research and expertise is shifting from being too western-centric, and we are seeing immense world-class activity in the field in Asia, it is important that the SIWW is held in Asia.

Professor John Anthony Cherry, Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2016 laureate

By the end of this year, for example, Prof Cherry plans to publish online the first 25 to 30 chapters of a new textbook that will replace his own 1979 book, “Groundwater”, that was co-authored with fellow hydrogeologist Allan Freeze. Prof Cherry’s book has been held up as the gold standard in the field for the past 40 years.

The free e-book, which will have about 30 chapters added to it in 2019 and 30 more in 2020, will be the centrepiece of a new website that aims to collate the international scientific and engineering community’s knowledge of how to find, develop, protect and remediate groundwater to boost the world’s supply of water.

Prof Cherry noted that winning the prize has been invaluable to his work on the project. He said: “I was able to find more participants for the e-book because I received more invitations to speak at locations across the globe, including in countries that I had not visited previously. With the project now entering a major fundraising stage, I also expect that the prestige associated with the prize will be most helpful.

Dr Benedek, who pioneered the development and use of low-pressure membranes in water treatment, said that work in the field has increased dramatically since he was awarded the prize in 2008. “The technology’s commercialisation globally has improved the quality and availability of water for more than a billion people,” he said.

He continued: “Most of this increase would have happened even without the prize, but I believe that it accelerated the increase, especially in Asia where most of the increase has occurred.”

Since winning the prize, he has been developing technologies to recycle the energy and nutrients in wastewater and solid waste. “I believe that our work will significantly enhance the sustainability of our planet, and receiving the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize was the critical catalyst that enabled all this to happen,” he said.

Prof van Loosdrecht, who won the prize for inventing an energy-saving method to treat used water, has had the same experience. “At the time of the award, I was developing another sustainable and cost-effective technology that purifies water using aerobic granular sludge. This is now on the market as the Nereda technology,” he said.

“Although the water market is considered very conservative, the Nereda technology has been implemented at more than 40 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants worldwide. It certainly helped that its inventor was a recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize,” he noted.

He is now working on creating high performance materials from wastewater sludge, with the goal of contributing to a circular economy and making wastewater treatment cost-neutral through the sale of these materials. “Being a laureate of the prize gives you great recognition and attention for your projects and ideas,” he said.

A global gathering for water

The laureates said that the SIWW itself has been key to boosting the global water and wastewater industry. “The organisers have done an outstanding job in a short time and made the SIWW and its associated programmes the most important technical and commercial conference on the planet,” Dr Benedek said.

Prof van Loosdrecht, who was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize this year for his work using microbiological technology to reduce the cost of wastewater treatment, noted that the gathering of industry representatives, engineers and policymakers at the event helps to accelerate the development of sustainable water systems that are essential for liveable cities and secure water supplies.

“At a time when the centre of global water research and expertise is shifting from being too western-centric, and we are seeing immense world-class activity in the field in Asia, it is important that the SIWW is held in Asia,” said Prof Cherry.

To commemorate the SIWW’s 10 years of excellence this year, its organisers have planned a slate of activities, including an interactive word cloud that showcases past and future water industry trends, sampling sessions of a beer made from recycled water known as NEWater, and a timeline of the best water technologies displayed on posters.

Prof Cherry summarised: “The SIWW is becoming the primary global meeting event for water science and engineering, and it will only continue to improve.”

The 8th Singapore International Water Week will be held in conjunction with the 6th World Cities Summit and 4th CleanEnviro Summit Singapore from July 8 to 12 at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. To register for the event, please click here.

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