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31.05.2013 - Natural Sciences Sector

Cooperation with UNIDO to explore the potential of nanotechnology to help address water challenges

Nanotechnology may offer promising solutions to address water problems in developing countries, but challenges should not be underestimated.

Providing access to clean water is one of the most pressing challenges in developing countries. Lack of access to safe drinking water impacts the lives and well-being of millions of people, whereas non-existent, or inadequate, wastewater treatment is threatening the quality of water resources, as well as ecosystems that we depend on.  Conventional water purification and wastewater treatment technologies often require large infrastructure, high initial capital investment, and considerable operating costs associated with the use of energy and chemicals.

What is the potential that nanotechnology holds to address these water problems?   What nanotechnologies offer the most immediate promise in water purification and wastewater treatment? Which areas of water use are in the largest need of a technological upgrade and innovation?

These were the main questions raised by a joint UNESCO-UNIDO session on “Nanotechnology Applications in Water Purification and Wastewater Treatment”, which was the kick-off event of cooperation between UNESCO and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which the two organizations have recently embarked on in the area of nanotechnology for clean water in developing countries. 

Under this cooperation, the two organizations will work together on a number of joint activities to explore the potential of nanotechnology in water purification and wastewater treatment, as an emerging technology that may provide sustainable and innovative solutions to reach the Millennium Development Goals on safe drinking water and basic sanitation, as well as to contribute towards the post-2015 development agenda and future Sustainable Development Goals.  Complementing ongoing activities of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme aimed at promoting water sciences, the cooperation with the Investment and Technology Unit of UNIDO brings a perspective on how advances in emerging technological developments, such as those in nanotechnology, can be utilized to enhance existing solutions to water problems and make a paradigm shift in water treatment systems, as industrial applications of nanotechnology are expanding rapidly.

Experts participating in the session presented research findings on promising nanotechnology applications in water such as improved membrane technologies, removal of bacteria and other pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and trace contaminants, water quality monitoring, remediation of polluted water systems, greater wastewater reuse, desalinization, as well as less-water intensive agriculture.  The session did not focus on the optimistic technological aspect alone.   Discussions touched upon also on how to draw the line between opportunities and challenges that limit nanotechnology applications in water. 

The session emphasized the need for a balanced approach to nanotechnology applications in water and underlined the risks associated with toxicology and wider impacts on human health and the environment as of importance for further deliberations given that water is a basic human need and integral to health and well-being.  Another issue of consideration was ethical issues of nanotechnology applications in water that arise from uncertainties related to environmental and health risks. Participants of the session also shared experiences on community engagement in making nanotechnologies relevant to local needs by presenting an example of using nanotechnology to provide clean water in a school in a developing country village.

The joint UNESCO-UNIDO session, co-organized  by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme (IHP), UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), UNIDO’s Investment and Technology Unit and Slovak National Commission for UNESCO as part of Conference on Emerging Ethical Issues in Science and Technology held in Bratislava on 30-31 May, provided a multidisciplinary platform for discussion and information exchange on a timely topic on opportunities nanotechnologies can bring to help developing countries solve water problems, while acknowledging  that challenges remain in implementing these technologies and should not be underestimated.   

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