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We need far more than a day dedicated to water issues

As many followers of GreenBiz know, today is World Water Day, an annual event dedicated to engaging people on key water-related issues with a call to action to solve these challenges. Among the foremost concerns are water scarcity, poor water quality and lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

The idea behind World Water Day was proposed in Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The first one came the following year, and each focuses on a different water theme. UN-Water plans and coordinates the annual program and non-governmental organizations such as UNICEF and WaterAid participate to raise public awareness through events and media tools. End Water Poverty, with 150 members worldwide, coordinates a calendar of global events for World Water Day and throughout March.

The private sector is also engaged with World Water Day. For example, last year companies such as the Coca-Cola Company, Ducks Unlimited Canada 2017, Microsoft, Ecolab, Nestle Waters NA and ProjectWET (PDF) announced strategic partnerships. Companies also have used the day to launch employee engagement programs to increase awareness on water issues and commit to community projects (such as Xylem’s Watermark).

The World Water Day theme in any given year also guides the focus for other annual water events during the subsequent 12 months.

For example, the 2018 theme for World Water Day is "Nature for Water," which explores nature-based solutions to water challenges such as green infrastructure solutions. One such green infrastructure project is the River North (RiNo) Park Project in Denver. The project is a multi-purpose green space that also will collect and treat urban runoff from the surrounding area. Building on this year’s World Water Day is Stockholm World Water Week 2018, where the theme will be "Water, ecosystems and human development." 

It’s clear that World Water Day serves an important purpose to focus attention on water as a critical resource for the public sector, businesses, civil society and ecosystems. However, World Water Day is 25 years old. How far have we really come in a world where public health crises such as those faced by Flint, Michigan, and Cape Town, South Africa are all too frequent? Today, millions of people are still without access to safe drinking water, and about 3.4 million people annually die from waterborne diseases.

For me, it is clear that, at best, we have made only slow progress in solving these issues.

I believe to a degree our slow progress is tied to our tendency to first look for technology solutions to address water issues without tackling more challenging but cost-effective strategies such as changes in public policy or customer behavior. A good example is the focus on desalination as the go-to solution to water scarcity instead of incentivizing conservation, reuse and recycling approaches (such as Pacific Institute, The Cost of Alternative Water Supply Efficiency Options in California [PDF]).

However, changing customer water use behavior is hard to do. Last week, I was at a one-day conference where a former general manager of a major water utility ran through the challenges related to managing water. His insights underscore the very real issues we must surmount to accelerate meaningful strategies for stewardship. His key points are summarized below (not verbatim):

  • Everything needs water — agriculture, manufacturing, etc.
  • Water supports everyone on the planet.
  • Water utility customers don’t really understand the complexity of delivering water.
  • The financial system to repair and replace water infrastructure is broken.
  • The water sector is resistant to change.

These issues are mostly related to how most people continue to view water — as an inexpensive disposable resource and not the essential finite resource that it is.

So, while I am dismayed that we have only made slow progress in addressing water issues, I should not be surprised. Until we are all motivated to be stewards of water, we will continue to make only incremental progress in managing this finite and precious resource.