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Wanted: Entrepreneurs to tackle urban drinking water challenges

Water, water, everywhere. Cape Town's James Beach.

The world is increasingly urban, and traditional approaches to delivering water are stressed and failing.

The ability to deliver safe drinking water in an urban setting is no easy task, and many centralized utilities are in dire need of investment for system repair and replacement. Moreover, these utilities face the impacts of climate change and typically lack the system resiliency to endure them.

Cape Town, South Africa, is an example of a city struggling to deliver access to safe drinking water in the face of an increasing population, outdated public policy and strained water infrastructure. While Cape Town is the most recent example of a city’s inability to effectively address water scarcity, it is by no means alone. Mexico City has been identified along with 10 other global cities as facing similar challenges.

I suspect that number is underestimated, and these urban water challenges are not going away.

Population growth will be a major strain on urban water systems.

In 2008, more than half the global population of 3.3 billion lived in cities. Alongside that, the United Nations projects that the world population could reach 9.3 billion by 2050, and research presented in Water and Urbanization stated, "Even without taking into account changes brought about by climatic or water quality stresses, a large number of urban areas around the world may need to rethink their water supply situations. Urban water systems exert pressures on resources exacting an ecological footprint that goes far beyond the urban region itself." These conclusions are supported by Global Analysis of Urban Surface Water Supply Vulnerability (PDF), which concluded that "population growth along with ecosystem service needs and agricultural usage makes many cities vulnerable to water shortages."

Despite the dire predictions, there are encouraging signs and efforts to address key issues for cities and their water utilities.

Innovative technology solutions are gearing up to ensure that water utilities consistently deliver safe drinking water equitably to an ever-expanding population while facing the impacts of climate change and poor funding. Entrepreneurs from startups and established companies are evaluating the potential of deploying distributed water supply and treatment solutions in a financially sustainable manner while addressing issues of equity and access. New technologies promise to leapfrog traditional approaches to water supply, conservation and treatment.

In an article published last year, "Approach to Building Freshwater Resilience," the former director of the Rockefeller Foundation Fred Boltz said it well: "Only by doing things differently can we deliver real change at scale." 

One example of doing things differently is the recently announced Imagine H2O Urban Water Scarcity Challenge, designed to address several major challenges facing the cities of today and tomorrow. The prize is backed by a $1 million funding commitment to provide deployment awards and seed investment from 11th Hour Racing and Bluewater Group. Scalable entrepreneurial solutions and the winners (or change makers) will be announced at Stockholm World Water Week.

The categories of solutions targeted in the challenge are:

  • Distributed solutions that develop and augment urban drinking water supplies.
  • Alternative supply options that strengthen decentralized drinking water purification and distribution systems.
  • Ecosystem health approaches that empower cities to monitor and manage environmental health of waterways and ecosystems.

Entrepreneurs are already emerging to address these urban challenges through innovation. Here are some areas I'm watching:

We need to support these and many other entrepreneurs in scaling solutions rapidly to ensure equitable access to safe drinking water in an increasingly urban world.

This is our opportunity to create universal access safe drinking water — essentially, creating abundance. 

This goal is within our reach.

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