Leadership lacking to solve crisis of 2.1 billion people without safe water

Leadership lacking to solve crisis of 2.1 billion people without safe water
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There are 2.1 billion people who live on this planet without safe drinking water. It is, by every measure, a global crisis, which is why United Nations Secretary General António Guterres launched the International Decade for Action earlier this year to support new approaches to tackling the growing threat of water scarcity.

After all, it was only a few months ago that Cape Town, South Africa faced the fatal prospect of zero water. Since then, 21 major cities across India, including Delhi, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, have battled the worst water crisis in their history, and are projected to run out of ground water by as early as 2020.


And these cities are not alone. Mega cities like Tokyo, Mexico City, Shanghai, Beijing and Karachi are already under water stress, and population demands will continue to make water shortage crises very real. 

Governments often talk of public-private partnerships to address this growing challenge, but what do such solutions really look like? As global leaders head to the UN General Assembly this month, they can take lessons from cities across the globe that are using smart water technologies to address water scarcity now, and for the future.

As cities grow, there are several key ways to lessen the possibility of water shortage calamities. At the top of the list is having strong and skilled leadership, access to crucial water related information, and finance to pay for water systems and infrastructure.

Leaders and their associated water, health, and natural resource management organizations need to take advantage of advances in information technology and water related finance to improve sustainable water supply. Digital technology, the related analytics of “internet of things,” and application of artificial intelligence to both interpret and apply data are game changers for improving knowledge of water supply and water use, while also reducing both water loss and costs.

Cities and counties are demonstrating leadership in applying these technologies. San Francisco, for example, has applied digital technology, analytics, and artificial intelligence to detect and pinpoint waterline leaks far faster than using traditional water meters. The San Francisco Public Utilities commission has installed automated meters for 178,000 accounts which produces 1.6 billion reads per year on water use at homes. These reads have improved knowledge of where and how water is wasted. 

To improve water pumping and reduce overall costs, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and the water technology company Xylem have been testing the world’s first “intelligent” waste water pumping system which is expected to consume considerably less energy.

To help reduce water consumption and identify leaks, Florida’s Miami-Dade County and IBM have utilized predictive analytics and smart metering to detect water leaks across the county’s parks; this is expected to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.

Of course, cities, water utilities, and the financial community must develop innovative ways to finance information systems, technology, and water infrastructure. Again, there are several lessons to be learned from what cities are already doing. To finance storm water and waste water management improvements, DC Water issued $350 million in taxable, green century bonds. To improve its credit rating and financial sustainability, the Bayonne New Jersey Municipal Utilities Authority partnered with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) and United Water, a unit of Suez Environmental, where in KKR and United Water committed to pay $150 million to the city of Bayonne for the rights to a 40-year water and waste water management concession.

While technology and finance are vital tools to meet safe water drinking needs, the most critical tool that global leaders and organizations can utilize is leadership itself. Unless water utilities have effective leadership both at the top and throughout an organization, utilities will not successfully apply the significant advances made in water technology and finance. As these organizations have shown, it is indeed possible to exhibit such a leadership and find innovative, public-private solutions to the global water crisis.

Chris Holmes is the former global water coordinator for the United States Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) and former chief financial officer at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Holmes a senior adviser at the Boston Consulting Group.