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Irthu Suresh: Using Blockchain Tech to Reduce Water Shortages

Much of the world takes water for granted. And much of the world has so little water that it’s a matter of life and death.

So how can we send water from areas of surplus to areas of need? This is the mission of Atlantis, a project devoted to solving issues stemming from climate change, focusing primarily on water. And they’re trying to crack this problem by using blockchain.

Irthu Suresh is a speaker at this year’s Consensus festival in Austin, Texas, May 29-31.

Atlantis is not just theoretical. Across 50 villages in the region of Chikmagalur, India, Atlantis deployed a Web3 solution that incentivized people to effectively transfer water from the Haves to the Have Nots. A clever system of “bounties” encouraged villagers to perform tasks that enabled this new distribution. And the pilot program worked. “We’ve exchanged more than 21,000 kiloliters of water,” says Irthu Suresh, CEO of Atlantis.

Giving a sneak preview of what he’ll share in Austin at Consensus, Suresh explains why Atlantis adopted blockchain, the challenges they had to overcome for onboarding, and why he wants the world to know that Web3 is not just for trading but that “we can use this to fight water problems, to fight poverty.”

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Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Atlantis didn’t start out as a blockchain organization, but eventually you incorporated the tech. What led you to this?

Irthu Suresh: We were trying to build solutions for climate change — primarily through water — as a Web2 company, but a private entity trying to build for the commons was not really striking a chord. And we ran into all kinds of challenges with existing power structures, everything from regulations to unregulated mafia in India. It’s very easy to bring down an idea if it’s built by a private entity. All you need is a bunch of lawyers.

And that led us to think, “How can me and my co-founder become insignificant over time as this system scales?" And that led us to look at decentralized distributed systems. We figured that if this works, no one should be able to bring it down.

Then we realized that there were people who were willing to harvest additional water and then supply it into the network. This was creating additional pools of surplus resources. And we were like, “What if we could build this entire system on blockchain?”

So what does that look like exactly?

In most parts of the world, things like water are heavily regulated. And you have these centralized grids. But as cities and spaces expand, often these centralized grids struggle to catch up.

But India is a great example of being built, historically, on decentralized communities. You have small pockets of villages taking care of their needs. It's hyper-local. So for us, it was a no-brainer to bring some kind of concept that solves for resource allocation problems.

There are some parts where water is abundant, and nobody cares about it. And there are other places where access to water is life and death. So for the pilot, when we partnered with Mercy Corps Ventures, we chose a specific location in India where on one side of this hill there’s an abundance of water, and on the other side of the hill there’s a drought. And how could people in this region exchange this excess water? How could we create the infrastructure locally itself? So for our pilot program in Chikmagalur — a rural region with 50 villages — we started with people in different water stress zone.

Interesting. What did your system do?

First we had people locally volunteer to spread awareness, then we had local people sign up to become water harvesters. Once we had these harvesters and there was a rain that was captured, there was an opportunity for it to be exchanged.

How does blockchain fit into this?

We built the product on a mobile native app. On this app, everybody could create a profile, sign up, and first mention what their skill is. And based on the skill, we start giving you tasks. And these tasks are pretty much to build up this peer-to-peer water network.

You could take part in surveying, you could take part in water sample testing, you could sign up as someone who wants to spread awareness through workshops, or you could become a harvester. All of these tasks are gamified; we call them bounties. People sign up and then they do the required steps that are required, and then they get incentivized. We knew this first required a distributed ledger that is tamper-proof, and we knew that blockchain is useful for that.

Amazing. Can you quantify the impact so far?

Yeah. We’ve exchanged more than 21,000 kiloliters of water. The network has over 3,000 people and it's covering 50 villages. Out of the 3,000, predominantly most are consumers who are coming into the network to access water. But we have almost 150 harvesters in the network. And then we have a bunch of surveyors and validators.

What’s a validator in this context?

Let’s say you plug into the network and say, "Hey, I'm a harvester." Then we put out a bounty for someone in the locality to become a validator, who goes to your place and just validates that, "Hey, these guys have the infrastructure for it." So what happens, in essence, is we’re creating a bunch of these local green jobs. And all of these different tasks are gamified using our bounty system.

What problems did you run into?

One was off-ramping. Especially in India, it's tough to off-ramp, because the regulations are still in a gray area.

And then starting from the first MVP we designed, at the very onset of onboarding, whenever we asked people to connect to a wallet, that didn't work. Because people were like, "What's a wallet?" And I got an absolute schooling on UI and UX. We had to really figure out when is the right place to introduce blockchain or the Web3 terminologies.

And we had to take extra steps to educate people about it. Because people are like, ”Oh, it's crypto. That means it's a scam.” And we’re like, “No, no, hold on!” Right? Like, there's so much more to it!

What tokens are you using to drive the mechanics?

We do have an internal token, which we'll someday launch. During the pilot we actively used it. But seeing how the Web3 market works, we are strong believers that unless we hit a strong product-market fit, launching a token doesn't make sense for us.

So we’ve integrated a mechanism in which different tokens can be brought into the platform. If someone wants to fund a water project in Africa using Solana they can, whereas if somebody wants to do a water project in Vietnam using Optimism, they're able to do that. We really worked on the interoperability aspect of it because climate change does not care which chain you are on.

Well said. Last question: What are you most looking forward to at Consensus?

So, one of the biggest lifelines for our project has been Bitcoin. And I know that Consensus is a great place to go and meet people who have pioneered some of these technologies we are using today.

I'm hoping that we're able to come and talk about the things that we’ve been doing with blockchain, which is not necessarily just DeFi trading. We really want people to know that, “Hey, we can use this to fight water problems, to fight poverty." The idea of distributed ledgers is super powerful. More people need to know that there's actual examples of this being played out.

Great sentiment. Congrats on what you’ve built and see you in Austin.