This year, Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) began to re-emerge as one of the more important global water events. Over the past couple of years, SWWW has been a hybrid of virtual events and in-person events. While I was not in Stockholm this year, I participated in several digital sessions and co-convened an event on the integration of digital technologies to support private sector initiatives in building healthy watersheds.
My key takeaway from this year's event was that the usual conversations have started to shift in a positive way.
Although there was no shortage of discussion by the usual players about the usual topics — such as collective action, the value of water and footprint water targets (replenish, net positive, etc.) — greater attention was paid to emerging issues such as rethinking the process and impact of collective action, the role of digital water technologies in quantifying the impact of investments in water stewardship and the need for deeper investment in water technologies.
It is important to note that these emerging issues overlap to a significant degree and should not be viewed as siloed issues.
My takeaways about where these conversations may take us.
- Healthy watersheds: Several private sector companies such as PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch InBev demonstrated that they are increasingly focused on contributing to building and sustaining healthy watersheds. While this may not sound new, when considering that water stewardship strategies typically include a focus on collective action and supply chain management, this is a significant development as it clearly acknowledges that water is a local issue and as a result, the watershed must be the focus. This is not to say that enterprise-wide strategies and goals are less important, but the impact of addressing "wicked water problems" within a watershed is what really matters.
The importance of watershed health can’t be overstated. Watersheds consist of company facilities, supply chains, communities and ecosystems that are of critical importance in view of the impacts of climate change on water resources and ecosystems. Essential aspects of healthy watersheds initiatives will increasingly include the application of digital technologies (remote sensing, real-time data collection, etc.) to monitor the impact of investments in natural and grey infrastructure, along with conservation programs and rethinking how to improve collective action programs by increasing the speed, scale and inclusivity (cross-industry participation) of investments.
- Digital water technologies: The adoption of digital water technologies continues to accelerate as reflected in greater interest by the private sector and recently non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to improve how they can deliver on their missions and quantify the impact of their work with the public and private sector, civil society and other NGOs. The interest by NGOs is driven by their desire use digital technologies to deliver real-time water and ecosystem monitoring and evaluation data to quantify the impact of investments in restoring and maintaining watersheds. An opportunity for digital technologies is to help quantify the return on investment in nature-based solutions, which is more challenging than traditional gray infrastructure (wastewater treatment systems). In essence, digital technologies have the potential to "level the playing field."
- Investing in innovation: Disruption, or at the very least, the discussion about how to disrupt the water sector, arrived in Stockholm. Several sessions were about innovation and increased interest in engaging with the investor community to support the private sector in achieving their water stewardship goals such as replenishment, net positive, etc. One such session was led by the CEO Water Mandate titled "Unlocking Financing for Innovations to Scale."
There was also an appetite to proactively bring entrepreneurs into the SWWW community — these individuals have a bias for action that challenges the status quo. This is a very healthy development as we need to engage all stakeholders to solve "wicked water problems."
What does all of this mean?
We are seeing signs that silos between stakeholders who have not traditionally participated in SWWW are finally beginning to erode. More entrepreneurs and investors are coming to SWWW to engage with the public sector, academics and the private sector. It appears that the traditional narrative of corporate water stewardship programs is being challenged by entrepreneurs from outside the water sector, innovative digital technologies and increased interest by investors in water technologies.
These trends are a positive development in transforming the water sector. However, opportunities remain to better integrate innovation into public policies, and in adapting business models and funding approaches to address the impacts of climate change we are witnessing in the American West, Northern Mexico, Europe and Southeast Asia, to name a few.
I am looking forward to SWWW 2023, when the thematic theme will be innovation, and I remain optimistic that the trends observed this year will scale.