Urban Design & Infrastructure

The future of water is clean, smart and accessible

Water is essential to our existence, which is why in developed parts of the world we build elaborate infrastructures to gather, purify and deliver it to meet our personal, commercial, industrial and other needs, and then recycle much of it afterwards. 

In under-developed regions, the task of collecting and distributing water is often much more labour-intensive — and time-consuming. The hours in a day lost to collecting and transporting water can easily compromise someone’s ability to hold a job or attend school.

There are opportunities to rethink how we manage the lifecycle of water in our lives, along with a pressing need to address how water scarcity and conveyance affects millions of less-fortunate people. 

Researchers and innovators at Ryerson are facing those challenges and developing solutions that could make a difference in lives today, and well into the future. 

Putting rooftops to better use

Stormwater is a growing concern in large, densely populated areas. Heavy rain or melted snow makes its way along hard surfaces covering much of a city like Toronto, for example, and into drains that lead to wastewater treatment facilities or local waterways. Too much stormwater can overwhelm the complex network of pipes designed to carry it and can lead to flooded basements and poor-quality water emptied into nearby lakes and rivers, while also increasing pressure on municipalities to invest in even more costly infrastructure projects.

$1
Potential cost per square foot of a blue roof (compared with $15+ for a green roof)

For architectural science professor Hitesh Doshi, part of the solution to managing stormwater more effectively comes from not looking down and envisioning more pipes leading to treatment plants, but rather up and to where a lot of rain and snow lands: on the rooftops of houses, apartments and condos, and other buildings. 

“A lot of rooftops are simply collecting water and putting it into the stormwater system — and something needs to be done about it,” Doshi explains. 

Instead, Doshi says that water could be diverted to on-site storage and used to irrigate nearby green spaces or even purified for drinking. Rooftops fitted with solar panels could see more value if some of the energy they provide is used to heat that collected rain and melted snow for use in washing or HVAC systems.

a professor in front of a whiteboard
Architectural science professor Hitesh Doshi

“Another question we have to ask is whether it is practical on certain flat rooftops to grow enough vegetables of a certain type to supply local needs,” he adds. “Looking at rooftops as potential biodiversity zones needs to be explored. We could also use them more to create amenity spaces, or for simply greening to act as heat sinks.” 

As he ponders the multitude of ways that rooftops could be put to work rather than left as vacant spaces, Doshi concedes there will be roles to play by municipalities and governments at different levels to enable some of his ideas to come to life. 

But, he also imagines how forward-looking companies might embrace the notion that their empty rooftops could be as valuable to their business as the large parking lots they provide for customers. If a chain of supermarkets were to sell produce or cut flowers grown and nurtured on its rooftop summer gardens using captured stormwater, for example, it would carry a strong environmental message to consumers — and could turn rainy days into money-makers, as a result.

That would be good for the economy, and even better for the environment.

Our product is driven by the desire to provide everyone access to potable drinking water, reduce water-borne diseases and, in turn, provide a higher quality of life to our users.
Andrew Feldman, Project Lead at WaterG

Access to water — clean water — for everyone

While managing stormwater sensibly is an option in developed countries, finding potable water is an urgent worry in large parts of the world. 

For many — mostly women — in the Gujarat region of western India, for example, each day typically requires walking long distances to fill a variety of containers with unclean water and then carry them back to their villages. 

It’s hard work. Water is heavy.

Similar scenes occur in impoverished areas and war-torn countries around the globe, but it was to the Gujarat region that several students from Ryerson went in 2015 to meet with government officials, entrepreneurs and investors and conduct field research that would help improve a water-purifying and transportation device conceived to alleviate the water woes of millions of people.

They were there as one of three winners of the university’s Global Innovation Challenge, which asked teams of students and alumni to develop ideas to improve social conditions for those in need. It was an example of learning beyond the classroom at Ryerson.

99.9%
Amount of bacteria or pathogens the WaterG device eliminates

The device the students were promoting is essentially a wheeled barrel with a handle that when pushed generates electricity and kills 99.9 percent of any pathogens or bacteria in the water it is carrying. It also has a battery that can store unused electricity that’s generated, which can be used to power small household appliances.

“Our product is driven by the desire to provide everyone access to potable drinking water, reduce water-borne diseases and, in turn, provide a higher quality of life to our users,” explains Andrew Feldman, who was the concept creator and is now project lead with the startup WaterG that emerged from the team’s early efforts. Those were aided in part by experience with Zone Startups India, a collaboration between the BSE Institute (a subsidiary of the Bombay Stock Exchange), Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone and Simon Fraser University, among others.

“I think in the next decade it would be possible to have our product in hundreds of communities globally,” he contends. “Our hope is that where our product is introduced, we’ll see a decrease in fatalities from water-borne diseases, as a result.”

That’s a noble aspiration, with global implications for the future.

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