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3 ways the course of water sustainability changed in 2017

ShutterstockFilipe Frazao
Aerial view of a rainforest in Brazil.

It is always difficult to reflect back on a year and identify the most notable annual events on any given issue. Water is no different and perhaps more challenging. Progress in the water sector, for the most part, seems at times to move at a glacial pace with a few exceptions.

As I look back on 2017, these three issues are worth highlighting.

1. The rise of the machines

The word of the year in the world of water is digital.

Digital technologies are gaining ground in the water sector and addressing a range of issues. Adoption of digital technologies is accompanied by an increased recognition that access to water data and analytics is essential to better inform public policies and business decisions.

First, efforts to improve access to water data and actionable information is gaining support. The "Internet of Water" report by the Aspen Institute and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute makes this case. An example of how this trend is unfolding into changes in public policy is the 2017 California AB 1755 Open and Transparent Water Data Act. The act would require the State Water Resources Control Board "in consultation with the California Water Quality Monitoring Council, the state board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, in accordance with a specified schedule, to create, operate and maintain a statewide integrated water data platform that, among other things, would integrate existing water and ecological data information from multiple databases and provide data on completed water transfers and exchanges."

This is a big move: basing public policy decisions on the better use of current data sets to address water scarcity, climate change and short-term droughts. Another example of this trend is WetDATA, a water data hub that I launched last year with the mission to democratize access to data and information about water.

Layered on this is the development of digital technologies for a range of applications: the remote collection of water data via satellites and drones; on-the-ground sensors; "smart" devices (internet of things); real-time water quality monitoring; predictive analytics; and artificial intelligence. Suddenly, we have more data and actionable information to make better decisions to manage resources (surface and groundwater), to address asset management (water and wastewater treatment) and to better allocate the scarce gallon or liter of water. 

There are several examples of digital applications in the water sector. This ranges from pure digital plays to companies adding a digital function to a current product. An example of the latter is the Microsoft Ecolab Partnership. Ecolab data "are collected from thousands of facilities around the world feed into local monitoring equipment, before being transferred to a secure cloud storage platform built on Microsoft Azure and Azure IoT Suite, in real-time." This is coupling Ecolab’s global footprint in delivering technical solutions to address water quality with Microsoft’s capabilities in data management and analytics.

A few categories of digital applications are suggested below: 

  • Remote and ground sensing: Rapid data acquisition and analytics (such as Utilis and Arable) 
  • Water quality: Next-generation sensors to track water quality in real time (such as FRED Sense)
  • Water usage: Consumer usage data communicated to motivate conservation (such as WaterSmart and DropCountr)
  • Asset management: Network sensors to improve leak detection, energy management and stormwater overflows (such as AYYEKA and Flowless)
  • Water utility economics: Identify and manage non-revenue water and strategies to improve utility profitability (such as Valor Water Analytics)
  • Predictive analytics: Improve response to system repairs thus reducing disruption and financial impacts of downtime (such asTaKaDu and Kando)

I believe this is the early stage of a long-term trend: digital technologies radically improving how we manage water. More on this in my next article on predictions for 2018.

2. Circular economy models take hold

One of the more important issues over the past 12 months has been the heightened focus on water reuse and recycling. A circular economy water strategy is really quite simple: reduce; reuse; and recycle. In a world where water is over-allocated and climate change has altered our ability to predict water supplies, we no longer can use water once and essentially throw it away.

Several initiatives are accelerating the move from a linear strategy for water to a circular strategy. Of note is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation work on Applying the Circular Economy Lens to Water and the US Water Alliance One Water Hub. The topic was also the theme of this year’s Stockholm World Water.

We can see the tangible adoption of a circular water strategy in the passing of California AB-574 Water Reuse Bill, which promotes water reuse. In regions where water is scarce from over-allocation, coupled with the impacts of climate change, water reuse and recycling are no longer optional. As a result, expect to see public policy adapt to this new reality by supporting innovative water reuse and recycling technologies.

3. The stagnant state of water stewardship: Is this it?

I expect a lot of comments on this one. The first two points above are well on their way to increased adoption in 2018, yet this will require a shift in thinking.

Water stewardship, once the focus of much attention, has stalled. My primary reason for this statement to support this conclusion is that water stewardship has become a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, in many cases a "check the box" exercise. Water as a CSR issue can create only so much value for a company. Likely not enough to merit much attention and funding.

One just needs to look at the numbers. While the number of companies reporting on water risks and opportunities has increased over time, the actual investment in water projects, as documented in the 2017 CDP Global Water Report, is not inspiring. The report stated that "companies are committing $23.4 billion across more than 1,000 water projects." This is not much when considering the scale of these companies and the severity of the challenges with water.

My point of view does not ignore the positive developments in water stewardship such as Alliance for Water Stewardship, WWF, TNC, WRI and Ceres Investor Water Toolkit. These efforts along with many others are having a positive impact in addressing water risks. We still need these programs, but I don’t believe they are enough on their own.

We need to move to water strategies that support business strategies: Inspiring companies to view water challenges as business opportunities and to focus on how solving water issues actually can drive business growth. Viewing water as a CSR issue can create only so much impact and value. Considering a water strategy more holistically can add value to a business, its stakeholders and society.

A water strategy aligned with business growth goes beyond current water stewardship frameworks of managing water across a company’s value chain and within watersheds. It provides greater opportunities for companies to contribute to solving "wicked water challenges" through innovation in technologies, funding/financing, business models and partnerships. A water strategy that truly embraces business opportunities and not just addressing risks can create greater value and impact for a business and stakeholders.

Let me frame this another way. Imagine if the 1,000-plus companies that responded to CDP Water in 2017 quantified how their products and services actually solved water issues? What if companies focused on their success in bringing to market innovative products and services, active participation in financing and funding of water projects and contributing to new business models and partnerships?

For example, look at how the information, communication technology sector quantified its positive impact on energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can do the same for water. We have an opportunity to move from value chain water footprint projects to creating business opportunities that have a greater value and impact.