Stream of innovations will aid water security

Progressive businesses are teaming up with the public sector to tackle one of the biggest challenges of our time, but the private sector must help shape policies.

Water insecurity looms as one of the great challenges of this century, and one that policymakers and business leaders must face together. They recognise that certain technologies being developed by leading companies are critical tools for effectively managing scarce water supplies.

But business leaders must do more to help shape the understanding of how good policies make it possible for technologies to be productive, and how ineffective ones do the reverse. Public-sector leaders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have long dominated the debate on water policy, but within the past five years a growing number of progressive private-sector companies have also started to lend their perspectives on how best to effectively manage water.

These companies have begun by paying much more attention to the water environment in which they function. As they develop a new generation of water-related technologies, they also increasingly influence a new generation of public policies that stimulate the development and use of these technologies. Here is how a number of them are engaging along both of these dimensions. One group of companies, including beverage, mining and energy businesses, has found that water scarcity constitutes a threat to their social licence to operate. In response, some have made large donations to activist groups in the hopes of buying peace. Others have asked for water standards that they can then meet in their plants.

The most far-sighted of these companies, with Nestle as a leading example, recognise that while companies have to manage water efficiently behind their factory gate, society (along with companies and their suppliers) needs an equitable, efficiency-stimulating, and predictable legal and regulatory environment that governs all water uses. These companies also believe that private businesses have useful and legitimate inputs to make into the policy process and that good business practices can guide effective implementation.

A second group of companies is developing technologies that can enable society to get more product, more food, energy, income, employment, per drop of water. There are three broad segments. The first comprises companies that develop productivity-enhancing seeds and agricultural technologies. Because agriculture accounts for more than 80 per cent of water consumption in the developing world and because the productivity gains of the last round of agricultural technologies (the "green revolution") have fallen to less than 1 per cent a year (from about 3 per cent a year in the 1960s), these innovations are vital for better water management.

The importance of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops, a core agricultural technology, is illustrated by the contrasting performance of corn in Europe, where GMOs are not allowed, and in the US agricultural state of Iowa, where 90 per cent of corn is grown from using GMOs. In the past 10 years, corn yields in Europe have stagnated, while in the US productivity has grown at more than 2 per cent a year. GMO crops use substantially lower amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and water. And some new-generation crops will be better able to thrive despite water stress. A second segment of companies is developing new technologies for treating water and waste water.

The process of desalination illustrates the importance in this area. The laws of thermodynamics state that it is theoretically possible to desalinate seawater by using only 25 per cent of the energy currently required to do so through existing technologies. If new developments in, for example, nanotechnology and membranes allow even half of this potential to be realised, the cost of desalination will fall to a level where most cities and industries in coastal areas throughout the world can turn to it as the new water source of choice.

The third segment comprises companies that provide users with just-in-time and just-what's-needed information, such as on the probability of rainfall, on soil moisture, on water and on fertiliser requirements. This is essential for energy consumption, domestic use of water and, most important, for agriculture. Precision agriculture can produce much more crop per drop than traditional methods can, and industries and cities can use much less water, too.

Executives at these leading companies know that progress in water management depends on linked advancement in technologies and policies. They have seen instances in some countries where policy shortcomings mean that many existing technologies that make more efficient use of water are not being fully employed. This has prompted a growing number of companies to engage with policymakers to ensure that key policies - such as tradable water rights, support for intellectual-property rights and efficiency-enhancing regulation - are implemented.

In conversations with policymakers, corporate leaders highlight examples such as the Murray-Darling Basin in south-eastern Australia, where an enabling policy environment means that a drop of 70 per cent in water availability has had virtually no impact on agricultural production. In situations like this, policymakers know that what is needed is a "next generation" of technologies that will enable society to do more with less.

And they know that the key to achieving this is a legal and business policy environment that stimulates the development of the next generation of water efficiency technologies. Although the glass may certainly look half empty, it is also half full, not least because progressive business leaders understand that water scarcity is an issue that will affect their industries, suppliers and the communities in which they work, and they have stepped into the policy area to help shape solutions.

And as they have, policy leaders have begun to better understand the private sector's contributions and to draft more effective enabling regulations. But more business and policy leaders need to follow the lead of their progressive colleagues. That is how we will secure further development of new technologies and the formulation and implementation of a new generation of water-management policies.

John Briscoe is the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering at Harvard University

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Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)

Match info

Premier League

Manchester United 2 (Martial 30', Lingard 69')
Arsenal 2 (Mustafi 26', Rojo 68' OG)