2014: The year water rose to the top of public consciousness

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2014: The year water rose to the top of public consciousness

Water supply
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Increased awareness of the water crisis was reflected in corporate strategies, technological innovations and partnerships this year.

It’s the time of year to look back on what we did and did not accomplish but, more important, to shape the year ahead. My take reflects my time working with NGOs in the world of water (Rainforest Alliance, WBCSD, Stockholm World Water Week, water.org), client engagements and the numerous off-the-record conversations that, for me, are a highlight of conferences with colleagues.

2014 was the year the water issues went mainstream, propelled to the forefront of challenges facing the public and private sectors. In January, the World Economic Forum ranked the “water crisis” No. 3 in terms of impact (the food crisis was ranked as No. 8); the CDP Water Program report was released, further highlighting water related risks; and a VOX Global and Pacific Institute report on water risks in the United States was issued. These reports and many others highlighted the business liabilities — and in some cases, the business opportunities — from water scarcity and quality risks.

Here are some of the year’s highlights:

  • The “drought” — First, let’s stop calling it the “drought.” It’s the “new normal,” and we need to plan how we manage water by looking forward instead of looking to the past for a view of supply and demand. The drought in the American West, Brazil and China highlighted the toll water scarcity takes on the public, businesses and, ultimately, the economy. One didn’t have to look any further than California agriculture to see the impact of water scarcity on economic activity. The drought promoted funding for water-related projects in California this year just as it did in Texas last year.
  • Management to stewardship — In the private sector there appears to be real movement from thinking of water as a management issue to a stewardship issue. CDP Water, CEO Water Mandate, WWF, the Alliance for Water Stewardship and others, including me, are pushing to get the public and private sector to understand that managing water will not completely address water risks. In most cases the majority of water-related risks are outside your operations — in your supply chain, downstream and in the watersheds in which you operate.
  • WASH — This year saw an increase in businesses addressing access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene as part of their sustainability and water stewardship strategies. WBCSD has gained traction with their WASH Pledge, with more than 20 companies having signed it to address this most essential human need.
  • Water tools — Tools and frameworks were everywhere as NGOs, multinationals and consultants attempt to quantify the full value of water. While tagged as “full value” they actually were more focused on risk and full cost. What is missing is quantifying reputational risks and brand value in economic terms. Perhaps in 2015.
  • Water-energy-food nexus — One could not go to a sustainability conference without at least one session on “the nexus.” While education and awareness are essential, most of these sessions were dedicated to viable solutions in terms of public policy and technology. 2015 should see a real shift to solutions as Big Data applications are leveraged to drive increased water efficiency/reuse and smart agriculture.
  • Water tech garners increased attention, yet liftoff seems slow — This year was filled with optimism that investment in water tech innovation would pay off. Increased attention in data treatment technologies holds the promise of vastly improved efficiency and effectiveness in water use.

Here’s what to expect in 2015:

  • State and federal initiatives on water. Expect to see states rethinking water policy and infrastructure investment taking the lead from Texas and California. The economic value of water and the “branding” of water at the state and local level will come into view as competition for water-intensive business heats up. States will quantify the economic value of water as a foundation for increased (and smart) funding and changes in policy and engagement with NGOs and the private sector.
  • Water, energy and food solutions — Expect a real uptick in focusing on “wicked solutions to a wicked problem.” Big Data, analytics and visualization tools, remote sensing, drones, smart agriculture and predictive analytics (for water infrastructure) gain traction.
  • WASH — There will be increased focus on quantifying the social impact of WASH programs and its integration into corporate sustainability and water strategies in emerging markets. Companies growing in emerging markets are investing in providing access to WASH along with related programs such as economic development.
  • Global Initiatives — Much will happen next year at the World Water Council Forum, Stockholm World Water Week, WBCSD events and initiatives on WASH, Greenbiz VERGE, and through the evolution of Sustainable Development Goals for key water issues.

2014 was a good to very good year in terms of progress. However, much more needs to be done when the world still has nearly 1 billion people without access to safe water and about 2.5 billion without access to sanitation.

Innovation in technologies, partnerships and policy will get us closer to solving the “wicked problem” of water and the energy-water-food nexus.