Waste Not
The True Cost of Water:
New Partnerships, Business Models and More Tackling the Global Crisis

On the final afternoon of an action-packed week at SB'16 San Diego, this panel brought together stakeholders working to address different facets of the global water crisis, both locally in California, and internationally. The panel provided an opportunity for each to describe the work of their respective organisations and the challenges they see for sustainable water resource management. Moderated by Kirsten James, Senior Manager for California Policy and Partnerships at Ceres, the panel featured Frank Burns, co-founder and president of APANA; Sarina Prabasi, Chief Executive of WaterAid America; Grace Jeon, founder and CEO of JUST Water; and Andrew Robertson, Volunteer Community Water Engineer at Water Engineers for the Americas (WEFTA).

When you approach the water issue at the scale of a 'huge drought,' Burns said he can see how no one feels empowered. However when you break the issue down, there are many "little risks to your infrastructure that all add up, and controlling those risks has value," both for the business - through addressing insurance and legal concern - and for the drought. "A water bill is a pretty blunt tool," Burns said. However "the application of technology is a game changer - the Internet of Things combined with system analytics, issues can be isolated and fixed."

Meanwhile, Ceres is a non-profit that works with businesses and investors on issues of water and climate. James echoed Burns' sentiment of water related risk, stating "the risks to business due to water are real." She identified the types of water risk for business as "1) Physical risk about water quality and quantity, 2) regulatory action and 3) reputational risk." Through these avenues of risk, "68 percent of business are exposed to water risk with financial impacts totalling more than 2.5 billion," she said.

To help businesses manage this risk, last year Ceres launched the "Connect the Drops" campaign, which brought together signatories to "lead by example and set goals for water stewardship." One example cited was the work Coca-Cola is doing with the National Forest Foundation to improve water resourcing issues.

Also in the business of water, JUST Water sells boxed water motived by Jeon's vision to 'truly bolster conscious consumption through everyday goods'. She describes how "bottled water is in about 80 percent of US households today, and while more and more consumers are participating in this category, many are asking 'how can I make a difference?'" While JUST Water does promote tap water, it provides those seeking bottled water "a better option." The water is sourced responsibly through a public-private partnership that seeks "to create value for a resource that is undervalued."

Working on another facet of the global water crisis, Prabasi spoke about how WaterAid is working to provide clean water and sanitation for people around the world. Motivated by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Prabasi pointed out that "clean water and sanitation also underlies many of the other goals including education, gender equality, employment and environmental sustainability." She cited staggering statistics, such us "650 million people don't have access to safe drinking water, and over 500,000 children die every year from diarrhoea due to poor sanitation." Entwined in this complex issue is the cost of water, where the people with the least water, such as those in developing countries pay the most, while industries in the west that consume the most pay the least. "In Papua New Guinea, people spend 54 percent of their daily wage to pay for their water needs." To address these issues, Prabasi declared that "we're not talking about tweaking systems - we're talking big-scale, ambitious transformation, because we think everybody should have access to safe drinking water."

Also working to improve access to safe drinking water in developing countries, Robertson is a professional engineer who volunteers with WEFTA. As opposed to the high-tech work associated with APANA, Robertson's work in Honduras is "very low tech, and the data is about ongoing follow-up with communities focusing on bacteria testing to ensure safe water, and billing records to make sure the water company stays solvent." He also spoke passionately about how the cost of water is a key driver of global water issues: "Water should not be cheap, it should be affordable, but it should reflect the true cost of making it available." He reflected on how the people of Honduras recognise this value and are willing to pay for it. He continued, "You're not doing anyone favours by charging people less than it costs to deliver water - it's not sustainable; there is no incentive to conserve this scarce resource."


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