OPINION: Why have we not solved the world's water problem?

Thursday, 19 September 2019 13:37 GMT

A man takes a bath under a water tap to cool off from the heat on a hot summer day in Lahore, Pakistan June 2, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

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As stories about water crises continue to make global headlines, the question of what to do lingers and the clock ticks

There is no single image that captures the challenges the world faces with water.  Water is not plastic, waste or climate change. It is complex with economic, environmental, social and spiritual dimensions. 

As a result, it is a fool’s errand to try to find a simple narrative to capture the minds and hearts of society to solve water scarcity, poor quality and lack of access to the resource. 

There is no shortage of news stories and images of women and children carrying water in Africa, pollution of the Ganges River in India, lead contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey and “day zero” in places like Cape Town. Year after year the World Economic Forum ranks the global water crisis as one of the top ten in their Global Risk Report, yet we continue to fail to invest in, and value, water.

We remain reactive and almost surprised by these routine crises.

So, why have we not solved the water problem? Why is it taking so long to do something?

We need to acknowledge that, in general, there is a failure of the public sector to adequately invest in, and solve, water. One only needs to look at the global lack of access to safe drinking water and the ongoing pollution of lakes, streams and groundwater to see the gripping evidence - and these are not developing world issues. Case in point: Newark, New Jersey’s escalating drinking water crisis.

The private sector can’t fill the gap alone. While it has resources to be part of the solution, it is not realistic to assume it can or will solve public sector responsibilities. 

Part of the problem is that water is essentially free or so inexpensive that it isn’t valued. On top of that, it’s “invisible” – we don’t see or think about the infrastructure that delivers it to our homes. We simply expect that when we turn on the faucet, it will be there. The fact is, that won’t always be the case.

So what needs to change? 

We need to democratize access to water and actionable information instead of relying solely on centralized water infrastructure and regulatory agencies. Put actionable information in the hands of all via technology to compel the public sector to invest in water and scale solutions, and we’ll start to see change. 

We need to also invest in, and scale, twenty-first century technology solutions such as localized water treatment systems and off-grid water supply systems like air moisture capture technologies. We are mostly relying on twentieth century infrastructure solutions that are capital intensive and costly in operation and maintenance. These systems are no longer working as well as needed for modern day challenges. 

We must also mobilize entrepreneurs to focus on developing innovative water solutions through prize competitions and partnerships with non-governmental organizations, multinationals, investors and even the public sector. 

And lastly, we need to engage entrepreneurs from outside the water sector. The power of bringing in outsiders with new thinking to solve water can’t be overstated. For example, the recent winner of the Imagine H2O Urban Water Challenge did not come from the water sector. Watchtower Robotics has developed a proprietary robot to internally inspect pipes to detect leaks as small as one-gallon per minute. The company was founded by Tyler Mantel and You Wu, who both came from other industry sectors to focus on solving water challenges. 

Many of the leading companies that come out of these prize competitions, hubs and accelerators were drawn from other sectors and disciplines and compelled to bring their talent and experience to solve one of the most pressing, and complex, issues of our time.   

The usual players are not getting us closer to a solution. Actors in the world of water are committed to solving water but it is too easy to fall into a pattern of relying upon the same toolkit, expecting a different outcome. 

Water impacts everyone, everywhere - and it requires action now.

Will Sarni is an internationally recognized leader on water strategy and innovation. He has been a sustainability and water strategy advisor to multinationals, water technology companies and NGOs, working on water strategies, water technology innovation and water market entry strategies.