UN2023 Gamechanger Challenge Final results in a celebration of global youth led innovations.

Standing on a stage in a New York high-rise building, 19-year-old Meinke van Oenen hoisted a small glass bottle of greenish water in the air and proclaimed that the algae in the bottle are “the green gold that defeats the salt”. 

Van Oenen, a student at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, was part of team Algeanius. Together with Pjotr de Haan (18) and Nynke Bats (18) from Wageningen University and Research an idea that uses halophilic algae to desalinate water was developed as part of the UN2023 Gamechanger Challenge. The method, she said, is cheaper and more sustainable than conventional desalination methods. 

She and her team, including Ayanda Mafunda of South Africa, Samah Iqtaish of Jordan and Mare de Wit of the Netherlands, were named winners of a Wetskills event that concluded the challenge. 

“The Green Gold that defeats the salt.”

“It’s not a very complicated system: you let nature do its job” 

Meinke van Oenen (19)

The team said they hoped their method, in which salt water is treated by algae in pools to reduce the salt content sufficiently for the water to be used in mining, industry and in some agricultural activities, would be an alternative to reverse osmosis, the energy-demanding method often used to desalinate water. If a university supports the idea with research, the team said a pilot plant using the method could be starting operations in just one year. 

More than 200 teams from more than 60 countries entered the challenge, with five finalist teams from the Philippines, India, Niger, The Netherlands, and South Africa presenting their ideas on 20 March as part of New York Water Week, held on the sidelines of the UN 2023 Water Conference. Other ideas presented at the finals included a system to captures, treats, and stores rainwater so that it becomes a source of drinking water, submitted by a team from Nigeria and Ghana, and a plastic recycling system that involves local communities using machinery to create usable products from plastic waste, submitted by a team from South Africa. 

Jaap Slootmaker, Director General for Water and Soil at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, emphasized the ambition to keep this inspiring movement going beyond the Water Conference. Uniting the world for water is not a one-time thing, we will keep collaboration to tackle the most pressing water challenges all around the world.

The UN 2023 Gamechanger Challenge, organized by Wavemakers United and IHE Delft, invited youth to share their ideas for social and technical water innovations to tackle the global water challenge. In addition to working together to develop their ideas with the help of mentors and other resources, the challenge participants also gave lectures in their communities about water challenges. 

Youth and expert juries judged the challenge submissions during multiple selection rounds, selecting front-runners based on the originality, local relevance, and global potential of their idea. The 20 top ideas are presented on the Challenge website to encourage  development partners to adopt the ideas and support their realization.

“Everyone is a winner. You should develop your ideas and never give up: make them happen!”

Yasmine Jabali, Assistant Professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, head of the Jury.

Interested in supporting one of the ideas of the Challenge or curious about what all Wavemakers will commit to beyond New York? Register your interest in supporting youth-led innovations by sending an e-mail to community@wavemakersunited.com or subscribe to the Wavemakers United newsletter here.