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World Water Day 2020: The role of innovation in creating abundance

We are now beyond business-as-usual approaches for water, which is critical for watersheds such as the Colorado River Basin.

With another World Water Day upon us, it is a good time to examine how we can accelerate progress in solving wicked water problems, including achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6, ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

I come back to the belief that we can create water abundance and achieve SDG 6. I am not alone in believing we can create abundance with regards to water. What that looks like is universal access to safe drinking water and ample water supply for economic development, business growth and ecosystem health. 

This is not a strategy of increasing water supplies to accommodate business-as-usual practices in the water sector. Instead, it is a view that innovation in technology, financing, business models, partnerships and policy will enable society and business to do more with less water in a sustainable manner. 

Creating abundance

Creating abundance is integral to the work of Peter Diamandis and the X-PRIZE Foundation. I was introduced to the mindset of creating abundance when I led the 2016 Safe Drinking Water X-PRIZE Sponsored by Brita. This experience convinced me that we can create abundance through deploying exponential technologies such as digital solutions (think: IoT devices, artificial intelligence applications and data acquisition and analytics via remote sensing).

Consider what digital technologies have accomplished in education, healthcare and transportation — increasing access to essential services and resources. The same potential exists for water. I also have expanded my view that it is not just innovation in scaling exponential technologies but also driving innovation in financing, business models, partnerships and policy that can create water abundance.

Consider what digital technologies have accomplished in education, healthcare and transportation — increasing access to essential services and resources. The same potential exists for water.
The view of water abundance has gained traction over the last few years, in reports such as "Creating 21st Century Abundance through Public Policy Innovation: Moving Beyond Business as Usual" and "Water Stewardship and Business Value: Creating Abundance from Scarcity." A recent report from the World Resources Institute (WRI). "Achieving Abundance: Understanding the Cost of a Sustainable Water Future," advances the thinking behind this strategy.

Sure, a sustainable water future comes at a cost. However, compared to the cost of business as usual, the investment is more than reasonable. As outlined in the WRI report, "It is estimated that to achieve sustainable water management for all countries and major basins is $1.04 trillion annually to close the gap between renewable water supply and demand." 

The report also references specific benefits of sustainable and accessible water management: 

  • The return on investment ratio for water access, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services ranges from 0.6 to 8.0. The primary drivers of these economic benefits are health-related improvements and fewer deaths associated with water-related diseases.
  • The World Bank estimates that regional GDP decline from water scarcity can be avoided through more efficient water allocation and policies.
  • The estimated benefit of reducing water scarcity risk globally for agriculture at $94 billion annually.
  • It is estimated that one in six cities (sample size was 4,000) that implemented source protection measures could net immediate positive returns through recued treatment costs. Associated benefits would be improved local health and well-being, higher biodiversity value and carbon value on top of saving water treatment costs.

It is unclear if these estimates assume incremental improvements in technologies and if the positive impact of deploying exponential technologies (such as digital solutions) and innovation in financing, business models, partnerships and policy were considered. Regardless, the WRI paper does map out a path forward and the investment required with a focus on the private sector.

The bottom line is that water abundance is achievable, and I believe even more so if exponential technologies are commercially scaled. 

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River

The Colorado River Basin in focus: A look at what’s needed

Which brings me to the Colorado River Basin.

For background, the basin supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, which is equivalent to about one-twelfth of the total gross domestic product in the United States ("Economic Importance of the Colorado River"). It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river's water were unavailable, there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs in just one year.  

The Colorado River Basin supplies more than 1 in 10 Americans with some, if not all, of their water for municipal use, including drinking water. It has become clear, however, that under current and projected conditions, the Colorado River is no longer able to meet the demands of its numerous users,

The Colorado River Basin is facing an increased imbalance between supply and demand — it is overallocated. The Colorado River water levels have dropped by about 20 percent to date and by the end of this century could decline by more than 50 percent. For a watershed that supplies water to about 40 million people, this is of profound concern.

A High Country News article March 10 lays out the profound challenges the basin faces, "Colorado River: This system cannot be sustained." The article also highlights the role of tribal nations in renegotiating the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, which regulate the flow of water to users within the basin.

The guidelines were established in 2007 but without tribal consultation until now. The Ten Tribes Partnership co-facilitated the Water and Tribes initiatives and is committed to ensuring tribal participation and values are integrated into water management within the Colorado River Basin. The basin is no longer sustainable and desperately needs innovative solutions at scale driven by stakeholders such as the tribal nations.

It is possible to create water abundance within the Colorado River Basin — among other crucial bodies of water and the regions in which they lie — which is why this year I am focused on supporting aligned action programs and accelerating the adoption of innovative technologies, financing, business models and public policies, detailed in my report, "Digital Water Technologies for the Colorado River Basin."

As we acknowledge World Water Day 2020, we should commit to achieving water abundance through innovation and not accept business as usual. It is not sustainable, and we can no longer fail to act.

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