MONTERREY, Mexico (CN) - As the days begin to heat up in northern Mexico, residents of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, are hoping they don't see a repeat of the previous summer. Last year, by July, severe drought and poor resource management had sunk the city into its worst water crisis in three decades.
Entire neighborhoods went months without running water. Party barges and floating restaurants settled onto the dry lakebed of a nearby reservoir that almost dried up completely. Tankers brought water from as far south as Mexico City suburbs like Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Ecatepec, areas already suffering from their own water supply issues.
Solutions like digging new wells, cloud seeding and - perhaps the most intractable - changing the habits of the people who use the water have all been proposed, and some have served as short-term Band-Aid fixes. But the water issue is still touch-and-go for the foreseeable future.
In this dire context, researchers in Monterrey are looking to the air for solutions, but they aren't praying for rain. A team of water management experts from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and private-sector engineers aim to scale up their atmospheric water extraction technology to provide what they claim could be as much as 60% of Monterrey's water needs, despite the region's arid climate.
"Our water cycle is broken," said Mauricio Bonilla, CEO of Innovaqua, a private company that sells atmospheric water generators and whose technology the team plans to scale up to serve the entire city. "The only way to sidestep that corruption is to take the water directly from the humidity in the air before the wind takes it to other places where we can't make use of it."
In addition to issues affecting quantity, such as how climate change has affected rain cycles, Bonilla also attributes this "corruption" to qualitative factors like contamination of water systems through pollution, neglect and even the prescription medications we take and excrete as waste.
But while much attention is paid to human-caused water waste in supply crises such as Monterrey's, the biggest drain on the system is the region itself. Nearly-three fourths of the water collected in reservoirs around the city is lost due to evaporation, according to researchers at Monterrey Tech.
Aldo Ramirez, director of the university's Water Center for Latin America and the Caribbean, uses words less potent than "broken" and "corrupted" to describe humanity's effects on the water cycle.
"I prefer 'disrupted,'" he said during a tour of E2 Off-Grid, the collaboration between Monterrey Tech and Innovaqua that provides water for four bathrooms and four potable water fountains in the campus parking garage from which it takes its name.
Two metal boxes roughly the size of industrial air conditioning units installed on the garage's second floor condense and collect over 360 gallons per day. The project also includes a rainwater collection system to run the building's plumbing, as well as a treatment plant that cleans and recycles the water used in the toilets, which is then used to water plants on the university campus.
Despite the project's name, one part of this system is still connected to the grid. The generators' condensers are currently powered by electricity from the city's main power grid, but the team plans on installing solar panels to increase efficiency.
They're working out what Ramirez said were "issues" with the local electricity regulator. Once that hurdle is cleared, the panels will go right up. They already have the budget and the mounting structures ready to go.
Atmospheric water generators are not a new concept. Most Americans have a version of the technology in their air conditioning units. The trick has been to make the technology cost-effective.
Currently in the monitoring and data collection phase of a viability study, the researchers hope E2 Off-Grid will prove that atmospheric water generation can be done cheaply.
And they're not the only ones who see potential in their technology. The project was born out of an initiative of Singularity Group, a U.S.-based organization that promotes the use of exponential technologies to solve the world's most pressing issues.
Singularity awarded the project the honorable mention in a competition among the organization's chapters across the globe to use exponential technologies to find solutions to local problems.
Exponential technologies are roughly defined as those that double their capacity over a specified amount of time. Computers are a prime example of such a technology, said to double their capacity every two years or so. Drones, 3D printing and artificial intelligence are other kinds of exponential technologies.
Making atmospheric water generation cost-efficient would solve Monterrey's local problem, but as Ramirez pointed out, if they do that here, their project's impact will be seen across the globe.
He called the extreme water scarcity Monterrey experienced last year a "sample" of what other places around the world will see as climate change and human activity continue to alter natural environments and processes.
"Climate variability and climate change are presenting more and more challenges to us, so we have to help, not only on the demand side by administering water better, but also on the supply side by looking for alternatives tailored to our environment," Ramirez said.
He cited atmospheric water generation alongside rainwater capture and the treatment and reuse of sewage water as some of those alternatives.
The idea is to scale up the technology currently generating atmospheric water at E2 Off-Grid to create larger "substations" that can be placed strategically at humid areas in and around the city. By taking advantage of places like the slopes of the mountains that rise out of the surrounding desert, they claim they'll be able to inject up to 60% of Monterrey's water needs directly into the city system.
Innovaqua CEO Bonilla estimated that the job would require around 25,000 substations.
Acting as a kind of mediator between academia, the private sector and soon the government is Jorge Lerdo de Tejada, Singularity's ambassador in the Monterrey chapter. He has already lost one lead professor to a dispute over which stakeholder may ultimately benefit from the project, and he's trying hard to prevent another such setback.
"Regardless of the fact that this idea was conceived by Innovaqua, picked up by Monterrey Tech and will hopefully be adopted by the government, the main idea is to make it a reality," he said. "Without claiming authorship or saying 'I am, I am, I am,' we just have to say 'We are, and we can do anything if we work together.'"
Lerdo de Tejada has his work cut out for him, though.
While Bonilla's intention to help his city provide water for its inhabitants is apparent, the CEO is clearly driven more by potential personal gain than altruism. Innovaqua's atmospheric water coolers for homes and offices cost $1,900 a unit.
And while he believes that the current political environment in Nuevo Leon is "favorable" to solutions such as theirs, Lerdo de Tejada has a difficult soul to convert in Juan Ignacio Barragan, director of Monterrey's water and drainage department.
Barragan has already turned down several offers for atmospheric water generators from companies outside of Mexico due to the high cost and low volume of water they produce. He called it "very interesting technology" for people in extreme situations of water scarcity, but has yet to see anything that could convince him that it is a viable solution for Monterrey.
"That technology is absolutely not of interest to an organization like a public water administration," he said.
Claiming that the three reservoirs servicing Monterrey currently have enough water to last the summer even in the case of no more rain, he is relying more on smart water management than bold innovations to ensure the city's taps don't run dry again. The water authority is building an additional aqueduct at the largest of the three reservoirs in an attempt to improve its ability to administer the resource effectively.
Still, Barragan is not opposed to atmospheric water, if someone can prove to him that they can make it work money-wise. And that is one big hurdle to hop.
"They would have to achieve a technological innovation that would change the history of the world," he said.
Lerdo de Tejada is confident that the project has the exponential factor to improve rapidly enough for him to present his world-changing idea to the government by the year's end.
Still, he admitted to certain doubts about the project's viability and ability to be scaled up to the city level. Researcher Ramirez is looking into the possible ecological effects of removing from the water cycle humidity that was destined for other areas.
Businessman Bonilla confidently touts his machines' ability to produce water from the air while using just a third of the electricity it would take to run an air conditioning unit. Innovaqua engineers are testing new, exponentially more energy efficient condensers.
Time will tell whether Monterrey becomes the birthplace of the potable water production technology that changed the world. In a matter of months, the city will see if there really is enough water in the reservoirs to last it through the summer.
One thing, however, remains frighteningly clear in this uncertain situation: whether it be as grandiose as a history-making innovation or as mundane and difficult as changing the habits we have formed over generations of convenience, both Monterrey and the rest of the world need a solution sooner than later.
For, as Ramirez and other water researchers often say: "The most expensive water is the water we don't have."
Source: Courthouse News Service