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Reimagining our freshwater future

About the blog

Alex Mung
Head of Water and Environmental Resilience, World Economic Forum.
  • Reimagining our freshwater future

The first half of 2022 presented the world with multiple jarring reminders of how vulnerable and fragile our water systems are. From droughts affecting the United States and France, to sweltering heatwaves gripping India and Pakistan, to devastating floods in South Africa, the humanitarian loss is beyond words, and the economic impacts are far greater reaching and more costly than often accounted for, given our interconnected global supply chains. All of this once again underscores the urgent need to address the systemic issues straining our water resources.

But to make meaningful progress, we need to be grounded in reality and acknowledge that the world has changed. While building a more sustainable and resilient global economy is arguably even more important today, global crises such as the pandemic and Ukraine have significantly strained financial resources and human capital. We need to challenge ourselves to think and act differently.

This is where I am optimistic and hopeful. Water is strategically positioned to help achieve our goals. Water can be the enabler and impact multiplier across topics like climate and energy, food security, restoring nature, creating jobs, and safeguarding our health and wellness.

Water can play an important role – both as a risk and an opportunity – in our climate efforts. As one example, in the drive to decarbonize the mobility sector, the mining of metals needed for the production of batteries for electric vehicles could be disrupted by water insecurity. Electric vehicles commonly use Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. Producing lithium requires significant amounts of energy and water and can have considerable environmental impacts. Improperly managed or left unaddressed, this can, in turn, affect local water security with other water users – both in quantity and quality of water – leading to disruptions in the production of batteries. The value at stake and the impact across supply chains for companies can be significant, and ultimately decarbonization efforts may be compromised. Yet water is still often missing from the conversation and strategies.

Water can be the enabler and impact multiplier in climate and energy, food security, restoring nature, safeguarding our health and wellness

As an opportunity, water’s intrinsic link to energy and carbon can be a useful lever for over 1000 cities that have pledged to halve emissions by 2030. A recent study by global water technology company Xylem estimated water utilities worldwide account for ~2% of greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of the world’s shipping industry – and 50% of these emissions can be cut with existing technology at low or no cost. Where much momentum exists to transition the shipping industry, why not a concerted push to help cities reach their net-zero ambitions through the water lens?

Across agriculture, one exciting opportunity in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, supported by the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG), will benefit one million rice and sugarcane farmers by targeting the mobilization of $100 million in private investments by 2025 and help improve farm yields, reduce water and carbon footprints, and increase farmer incomes. The expected outcome is a 10-fold increase in the area under water-efficient technologies and a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from flooding of farmers’ fields. This is just one example of 2030 WRG’s pipeline.

Such integrated approaches open doors to novel ideas for financing and attracting investment into water. Why couldn’t a page be taken from the transport sector in Hong Kong where the MTR corporation operates a real estate-transport hub model that delivers excellent transport systems, new and vibrant neighbourhoods, opportunities for small businesses, and conserved natural open space. It works because the government allows MTR to benefit from the property-value increases that typically follow the construction of rail lines and transport hubs. Apply this model to green infrastructure and water assets, where utilities and developers could see returns from land value increases. This would create incentives to invest in water bodies and green infrastructure, providing natural storage/drainage solutions to alleviate stress on municipal water infrastructure. It would help rethink the way we plan and build our cities to maximize natural assets that also help cooling effects against urban heat and boost mental health benefits. Such a model would start placing proper value on water and natural assets and provide fresh thinking for the new Global Commission on the Economics of Water tasked to help redefine the way we value and govern water.

A partnership spearheaded by HCL and the World Economic Forum aims to support and create a groundswell of water-focused entrepreneurs

These ideas then start to inspire innovation in water – not only technology solutions, but new business models, policies, and financing. Imagine if, through technology, products could be traced back in real-time to watersheds of origin and a company’s water stewardship activities. Products associated with “gold standard” water stewardship activities could be eligible for inclusion in a negotiated trade pact where benefits include better access to markets, tax exemptions/credits, or freer movement of imports/exports. For something more grounded, consider the nutrients that can be found in wastewater such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. All are in demand and valued by the agricultural sector. In today’s context, Russia is among the top exporters of all three, now severely impacting their availability across the agriculture supply chain. Theoretically, if one could fully recover these nutrients from wastewater, they would meet over 13% of global agricultural demand for them, according to the United Nations University. If done in a cost-effective way, why couldn’t the recovered nutrients from wastewater be valorised and turned into an additional revenue stream for wastewater operators and support local sourcing for agricultural producers?

While these ideas might be a way off yet, a new partnership spearheaded by HCL, a global technology company, and the World Economic Forum aims to identify, support and create a groundswell of water-focused entrepreneurs with demonstrated innovations. Importantly, this effort will help establish the connections and create the conditions under which “Aquapreneurs” can thrive and inspire even more ideas. While there will not be a “silver bullet” for water, the impact innovators can have has been demonstrated across other topics. If this same energy can be harnessed, guided and properly supported, it can be turned into a powerful, positive force for the water innovation agenda.

The ideas illustrated above are intended to paint the picture of possibility for the water sector and stimulate conversation as we set our sights toward the 2023 UN Water Conference. This milestone event has the promise and potential to be a pivotal moment for water. It could provide a real opportunity to spark the creativity, energy and momentum for a successful final sprint to 2030 and achieving SDG6. While the fundamentals of water stewardship must be continued and mainstreamed at the local watershed level, and themes like addressing the water-energy-food nexus, financing, and innovation should absolutely be pillars of any water action agenda – there should be nothing stopping us all from imagining incredible, bold, transformational ideas. In fact, the imagination is where many of our greatest moments in history started. Success, however, will require a concerted effort to mobilize the commitment, expertise, networks, and collaboration of leaders from across government, industry, and civil society starting now, and arriving at the UN Water Conference. I am convinced this can be done, and through public-private cooperation, we can raise ambition, accelerate action and reimagine our freshwater future.

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