Water and Business Inextricably Linked

by | Mar 23, 2009

bjorn-mug22On March 22, World Water Day, a week of important announcements, learnings and discussions about the intensifying issue of global water scarcity drew to a close. The Fifth World Water Forum was home to firm commitments from more than 100 countries to jointly tackle global water challenges – from access to clean water and sanitation to the energy implications of water transport.

Clean Drinking Water for the Middle East and Africa:

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Water Association (IWA) signed an agreement to work together to increase access to clean drinking water and sanitation in the Middle East and Africa by strengthening water utilities and their regional associations.  The partnership will focus specifically on access to clean drinking water and sanitation for the urban poor, water safety and quality management.

This collaboration marks a shift in attitude: governments and others are increasingly arriving at the realization that water—unlike carbon— is inherently a local and regional issue, and therefore solutions must also be local.  Solutions that may have worked in the developed world may not work in emerging markets.

As businesses, we need to approach water issues the way we approach market development – work with a local partner to develop a tailored and customized solution that is appropriate for the local culture and infrastructure.

I’ll be interested to see how the USAID/IWA partnership will roll out, and the lessons we can learn from it.

Water & Energy:

On March 21, I spoke at the “Water and Energy, Energy for Water” ministerial roundtable as the business representative. The discussion emphasized coordinating and integrating the water and energy sectors; addressing the multiple uses of water; and, developing sustainable water projects through the use of environmental impact assessments.

The roundtable also underscored how the private sector can contribute by finding cost-effective and efficient ways of reducing water and/or energy consumption, such as reusing and recycling municipal and industrial wastewater through energy-saving treatment processes.

I think this is an area of the water debate that perhaps doesn’t receive as much attention as it should.  We know that water, energy and climate change are inextricably linked, and that water is critical to energy generation.  Energy is also critical to water access:  pumping/transporting water alone accounts for more than 20 percent of all global energy consumption.

So the challenge is before us. How can business and government work together to ensure economic growth, meet energy demands and create jobs for a growing population without exacerbating the impact of climate change? ITT worked with the World Business Council for Economic Development to help guide the debate. You can read the paper here.

Looking Ahead

The next World Water Forum will be held in 2012. What we learned in Istanbul is that in the intervening years, we must:

  1. Grow differently: We often hear this term used with respect to carbon emissions in developing countries, but it should apply to water too.  According to the latest figures released by the Organisation for Co-Operation and Development (OECD), by 2030, about half the world’s population—3 .9 billion people—could be living in water-stressed areas where health and sanitation are at risk. In emerging markets, we must collectively muster the political will to take action to preserve water resources and build a sound infrastructure. In developed countries, we must find ways to use our water resources more efficiently and continue to invest in innovation. Unlike carbon emissions and climate change, where we are struggling to make up for lost time, there is an opportunity to be proactive to start mitigating the problems now. In doing so, we have the opportunity to enter markets with strong growth potential.
  2. Collaborate: Impact is most efficiently achieved through collaboration, a fact illustrated by the many public-private partnerships announced this week. Companies need to work with governments, NGOs, professional associations – and even competitors – to create real and lasting change.
  3. Focus: The fact is that one organization cannot tackle every water issue at once. Building on the idea that collaboration is key, we need to figure out where we can each add the most value. For example, ITT can contribute to the energy side of the water equation through its technology that lowers energy costs 65 percent by automatically monitoring pump performance. This idea becomes even more critical in this economic climate. More than ever we must channel our resources and expertise more definitively, with clearer goals and more focused action.

I think the global community understands that water issues – and the impact of scarcity – will only intensify as carbon emissions, energy and climate change issues continue to escalate. We converged around water this week, but in the end, addressing water issues in isolation will be futile.

Jack Moss, a spokesperson for Business Action for Water, put the issue into perspective perfectly. “Water is a very important issue for business. Without water, there is no business. Without business, there can be no employment, no economy, and no well-being for people or society.”

Bjorn Von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp., attended the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. He is writing a series of reports on the forum for Environmental Leader.

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