MEDRC Center Director, Ciarán Ó Cuinn on the Oman Humanitarian Desalination Challenge

Providing cheap, off-grid and hand-held desalination is a humanitarian game-changer often debated but never attained. It takes time and money to get fresh water to the victims of war or meteorological disaster where fresh water sources are destroyed or when sea-water immerses communities. We need a way to get water to these people in the first hours and days following the crisis. That’s MEDRC’s goal through the Oman Humanitarian Desalination Challenge.
The Challenge is a global water prize worth 700,000 USD for the team that delivers a hand-held, stand-alone, low-cost, desalination device suitable for short-term use and rapid deployment in the event of a humanitarian crisis.
Launched this year by MEDRC and our partners, The Research Council (TRC) in Oman, the initiative will drive innovation in small scale desalination technologies. Ultimately, it will revolutionize humanitarian emergency response efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters. This is about life saving technology.
We know this challenge will not be easy to meet. Scaling down the desalination plant technologies that surround us today into a hand held, commercially viable product that meets the design criteria of this challenge will be no easy feat. An impressive prize purse of $700,000 reflects the enormity of the challenge. Together, MEDRC Water Research and The Research Council are hoping to lure top contenders from around the globe to put their ingenuity to the test and take on this challenge.
In parallel and in support of this initiative, USAID are partnering with MEDRC on a second track of funding.
This will support a new Desalination Challenge Research Call supporting pathway research, aimed at the delivery of a family sized desalination unit. It is envisaged that in addition to reducing pressure on existing water supplies in the developing world, this unit will act as a precursor to the successful delivery of the individual device that the Oman Humanitarian Desalination Challenge looks for.
Access to clean fresh water during and after natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or floods is critical to health and survival. For relief agencies responding to a crisis, the provision of water to the affected population is one of their first priorities. Due to the varying size, scope and complexities of disasters, there is no one size fits all approach to solving the problem of water scarcity following a humanitarian crisis. Current solutions range from placing large scale water treatment units onsite or transporting in massive quantities of bottled water, through to distributing water purification devices or tablets. None of these is ideal in the aftermath of a natural disaster where storm surge has occurred and a rapid humanitarian response is required.
Water purification devices for instance can be effective short-term solutions in an emergency situation but are only capable of filtering out waterborne bacteria and parasites, they do not rid contaminated water of chemicals, viruses and salt water. This is the shortfall that the Oman Humanitarian Desalination Challenge seeks to address.
Think of being stranded on a roof waiting to be rescued with storm surge water around you. You are surrounded by water yet have no water to drink. An effective humanitarian emergency response in this instance would be for first responders to rapidly deploy a device that would enable you to easily and quickly, without need of electric power, turn the salty water that surrounds you into drinking water, until they could organize your rescue. No such product exists on the market today.
Societies and communities around the world are ill-prepared for refugee movements, severe weather, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and other short-term humanitarian crisis situations. The number of recorded disasters has increased seven times, since the 1960’s, impacting hundreds of millions of people each year.
The vision is to provide individuals with the ability to inexpensively purify saline contaminated water sources during short-term catastrophic events. There are no commercial products on the market that meet the challenge.

These exciting initiatives underpin MEDRC’s mandate to provide solutions to fresh water scarcity. Since the organization was established in 1996, we have led a multi-million-dollar program of support for water research projects across the Middle East region. In terms of research our aim is to lead and support projects that have practical impact.

The past five years has seen MEDRC expand four-fold. Today our research team is involved in a broad array of projects ranging from membrane research to regional reporting on desalination trends and needs. Our training department provides hands on training in all areas of desalination and water needs from operators of small-scale agricultural plants to the design of maga-plants. The MEDRC Development Cooperation department supports a significant research and capacity building programme in Jordan and Palestine.

The MEDRC headquarters in Muscat contains several desalination plants, laboratories, lecture halls and demonstration areas. The organization has never been healthier or more active. The goal now is to make practical gains in the quest for solutions to fresh water scarcity that defines our region.

The application window for the Oman Humanitarian Desalination Challenge closes February 28, 2019.
MEDRC aim to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) call for the pathway research grants, through the organization’s website in March 2019.