Is lateness the water business’s saving grace?

Published March 23rd, 2017

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Is the water industry becoming more global, despite growing protectionism and nationalism around the world? I found myself asking this question while going through the delegate list for next month’s Global Water Summit: not only do we have more registrations at this stage than we have had for any of the previous ten summits, but people seem to be willing to travel further to attend. We have two people travelling through 12 time zones (the head of Fiji’s water authority and the CEO of Watercare in Auckland, New Zealand) and two people travelling through 13 time zones (Samoa’s minister of works, transport and infrastructure, as well as the head of the national utility). I didn’t even realise that it was possible to be that many time zones away. With a strong showing from Australia, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, it looks set to be the most global summit we have ever run.

Back in 2007 when we staged the first Global Water Summit in Barcelona, the global part of the water industry was much more limited. Desalination was the biggest market in terms of the value of cross-border activity, and everything else could be supplied locally. Since then, the part of the water business that is international has grown in three different directions. First, in terms of technological scope. After desalination, we saw a lot of interest in new treatment technologies, particularly those associated with energy from waste and the circular economy. More recently, we have seen an explosion of interest in the digital area. Ten years ago, if someone from GSMA – the organisation responsible for setting standards in the mobile telecoms industry – had turned up at registration, I would have assumed they had taken a wrong turn in the hotel. Today I am really pleased to see the organisation represented on the agenda, because I want to hear how the mobile ‘phone companies are looking to roll out the Internet of things in the water sector. Second, the international market has grown in terms of end-user interest. We are seeing a lot more industrial water users taking an interest in the event (for example we have five Latin American mining companies represented this year), and a much broader range of utilities attending. Third, there is the broader geographic spread, as evidenced by our friends from Samoa. It reflects the fact that more countries are encountering water problems which can only be solved with outside help.

This diversity doesn’t make the market any easier, however. As we reported in this month’s magazine, 2016 was a pretty tough year for top-line growth at most of the major businesses in the international water industry. I am not so worried about that. Water tends to be a late cycle business. The global economic recovery that The Economist informs us is now in full swing will eventually come to water, and when it does, our industry will have a much broader base from which to grow.

As for globalisation, water is a late-comer to that as well: turning up just as other industries are looking to go home. The reason for this tardiness is that nobody really wants to spend on water: it is something that over time becomes an unavoidable need. What we are seeing now is a much more diverse range of water needs arising around the world, and it is internationalising the business in a way that protectionism will struggle to reverse.

From a conference organiser’s point of view, this diversity creates a different kind of challenge: how do you cover everything that is happening in two days? There will be some times when you will want to be in five different sessions at once. You will have to bring four colleagues, but book quickly, because the hotel rooms are filling up fast.