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10 Perspectives on the Future of Water

Water today is cheap, poorly managed and becoming increasingly scarce, and what is already a complex issue is only going to get more complicated as the global population continues to swell and the world's aging infrastructure gets older.

Similar to the challenges facing us with climate change, action on water scarcity is torturously slow. But unlike climate change, water shortages are a near-term life-or-death situation. The good news is that the battle isn't going unfought.

On Tuesday, Dow Chemical Co. brought together 60 of the world's leading water experts for a free, fast-moving virtual conference that explored the past, present and future of the global water challenge as part of its The Future We Create initiative. Sixty representatives from industry, academia, nonprofits and other thought leaders each offered back-to-back one-minute messages about water as it relates to people and businesses.

"The key to solving our biggest challenges lies at the intersection of science, collaboration and human ingenuity," Mary Jo Piper, Dow Chemical's public affairs manager, said in an email. "Collaboration is critical -- it requires human interactions and productive conversations based on mutual respect. That's why Dow created The Future We Create conference series -- to provide a meeting ground for leading-edge thinkers and curious minds to learn, share and act for a better future for us all."

We'd be remiss if we didn't ask the question: Is Dow the right company to talk about the future of water? The company has had its own water-related issues, including a dioxin clean-up near its headquarters and lawsuits alleging water contamination. While the company wouldn't comment on pending litigation, it did note that technology from its Water and Processing Solutions unit is being used to produce 22 million cubic meters of water daily around the world. It has also managed to reduce water consumption at its biggest production site by a billion gallons a year, which is fairly impressive by any measure.           

In any case, the virtual conference included a wealth of interesting information. Below are some memorable quotes that caught my attention from the program, which is still available online:

Lara Abrams

• "Water is cheap right now, relatively speaking; it's not going to stay that way. It's not plentiful; it is not going to become more plentiful. The time for companies to act is when it's less expensive to act, versus more expensive to act. Companies that have invested in water technologies include Khosla, Kleiner, DMJ -- huge corporations out there. I think all of this activity bodes well for the future of water and our ability to handle our water challenges, though there is a long way to go." -- Lara Abrams, founder of Lara Abrams Communication

• "An average American uses more than twice as the amount of water as the average person uses in Hamburg, Germany; Rotterdam, Holland; and Barcelona, Spain. Similarly, from India to the Gulf countries, per capita water use is two to three times that of the cities which have more efficient water use." -- Asit Biswas, president, The Third World Center for Water Management

Julia Bucknall• "One of the things I've learned is that very few places know exactly how much water they've got with any accuracy. It's really difficult to make good investment decisions if you don't know how much water you've got to put into those investments. What we are seeing though is a massive change in the way people are engaging with their resources and their governments because of new technologies." -- Julia Bucknall, Water Unit manager, World Bank

• "An example of innovation could be Bolivia, where there's a village where they have these special mushrooms. They're sort of like a truffle that grows under pine trees. They found that if they add some fermented urine to them that the mushrooms will grow much faster. This is a great market, it's an existing market and this is an innovation that they developed locally. What we're trying to do is use that demand for urine as a reason to build a toilet. So we're finding some really interesting ways to build on local innovations to solve sanitation problems." -- Susan Davis, chief partnership officer, Water for People

• "I've found the biggest enemies of progress in the water sector are two things: turf and inertia. This leads to big anomalies in the water sector. For example, water is the biggest user of energy. That hasn't been widely known until recently ... What we need to do is step back and look at the opportunities created by these anomalies. -- F. Henry Habicht III, managing partner, SAIL Capital Partners

• "Let me give you a sense of what water stress means on a very human level. Half of all hospital beds around the world are filled with people with waterborne diseases." -- Lisa Nash, CEO, Blue Planet Network

• "Indoors, fix all leaks and take shorter showers. You can also use water-saving devices, include high-efficiency toilets, shower heads, aerators, washing machines and dishwashers. You can find even greater water savings outdoors. Again, fix all leaks. Use soaker hoses and drip irrigation." -- Janet Nazy, executive director, Partnership for Water Conservation

• "Most people don't know the true source of their water. The Nature Conservancy recently did a poll of 1,000 Americans and less than a quarter could name the actual lake or river where their water comes from." -- Jeff Opperman, senior scientist, Global Freshwater Team, The Nature Conservancy

Jeff Seabright• "One of the things we've learned at Coca-Cola is that water is not just a physical resource. We obviously use a lot of water, but we've really learned that water is a very special molecule. It really is not a commodity like electricity, it's a cultural issue, a deeply social and political issue in many places and countries; it has tremendous religious symbolism. As we operate around the world, we've come to understand and appreciate -- in part the hard way through some of the lessons we learned in India -- that we really need to learn to respect water, in terms of earning not just the physical license to operate, but the emotional and social license to operate." -- Jeff Seabright, vice president for Environment and Water Resources, The Coca-Cola Company

• "We believe it will always be available to nourish our bodies, grow our crops and operate our factories. Water availability and purity are increasingly scarce, not only in arid regions. The removal of inefficient subsidies, technological innovation and better water management must each do their part to solve the global water crisis. But so must each one of us. We must do nothing less than re-examine our relationship with water." -- Terry Yosie, president and CEO, World Environment Center

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Kevin Pelletier.

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