It is estimated that currently 844 million people live without clean water, and 2.3 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation, according to water.org.
Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population, and this figure is projected to rise due to increased demand and the impacts of climate change. Climate change itself has increased the occurrence and severity of floods and other water-related disasters with 70 percent of all deaths caused by natural disasters.
Wicked problems, such as water scarcity, poor quality, lack of access, and inequity can be solved by leveraging the capabilities, attributes, and scale of all stakeholder groups. While there is a tendency to focus on engaging the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in addressing water issues, the responsibility of the public sector is often ignored. For example, over the past several years, the focus on “Day Zero” has mostly ignored the issue that long-term national water strategy and policies are the responsibilities of the public sector. A “Day Zero” should not be a surprise in a world where water is poorly governed, overallocated, in increasing demand, and impacted by climate change.
The Role of the Public Sector Cannot be Overstated
While most of the public sector struggles to cope with the impact of wicked water problems, there are several countries that view water as a strategic resource essential for economic development, business growth, social well-being, and ecosystem (natural capital) health. It is important to note that an abundance of regulation doesn’t equate to a national strategy for water.
For example, the United States has tens of federal and state agencies responsible for regulating water, but it doesn’t have a national water strategy. In some regions such as the American West, the Colorado River Basin is governed by seven states with an international agreement with Mexico. Climate change is impacting the watershed and the public sector is struggling to adapt, in part due to a compact established in 1922.
For those countries that do have policies and incentives in place to protect and govern water, the United States can learn a lot, especially on the heels of the recent failure of power and water utilities in Texas. The impact of extreme weather events in mid-February knocked out gas, power, and water services across as many as 13 southern states. Texas was hit the hardest with power outages impacting more than five million people and leaving 14.4 million people without access to drinking water. In Texas, during the storm event and the days following, about 1,100 public water supply systems reported weather-related disruptions.
Who Is Getting It Right?
The places to look for best practices and strategic thinking with regards to water and its intersection with other resources such as agriculture and energy are Israel, Singapore, the Netherlands and Spain. Each of these countries does many things right with respect to valuing water as a strategic resource. For example:
- Israel: Israel has an 87 percent water reuse rate, in contrast to the U.S. rate at 10 percent. Nearly 90 percent of the water reused is for agriculture, which enables food production in a desert climate. It is not just the focus on water conservation and reuse. In addition, Mekorot is the national water company and the country’s top agency for water management. It is not just a national water utility but one of the leading utilities in the world in terms of innovation, reliability, and security. For me, one of the most important aspects of why Israel is a leader in water strategy is its water technology export strategy (Export Institute – Water Technologies). The bottom line – they have a water security strategy and a leading water technology export business.
- Singapore: Singapore also has a national water strategy, water technology export strategy, and one of the world’s leading national water and wastewater utility. Reclaimed wastewater meets 40 percent of Singapore’s water demand and they have branded their highly treated wastewater as NEWater with great success.
Other countries to watch include Spain and China who are also leaders in water reuse, with the latter accounting for 49 percent of capacity contracted between 2010 and 2017. For China, reuse capacity has almost doubled since 2010. Cumulative contracted capacity has increased from 59.7 million m3/day in 2009 to 118 million m3/day in 2017. Spain has led the European wastewater reuse market since 2010, with large projects aimed at agricultural users.
The Path Forward
While the United States clearly lags in viewing water as a strategic resource that must be protected under a national strategy, President Joe Biden’s recently proposed infrastructure plan includes investment in water infrastructure, including addressing exposure to lead in drinking water. While this is a promising start, it doesn’t go far enough to invest in innovative water technologies such as digital solutions (like AI, IoT remote sensing and cybersecurity) and building capacity with the water and wastewater utility workforce.
The path forward for the United States requires valuing water as an essential strategic resource, investing in water security, accelerating innovation, and building a world-class export strategy. We would do well to learn from other countries like Israel and Singapore and weave in our unique strengths in entrepreneurship and innovation.