Six things I learned at World Water Week
Published August 31st, 2017
I have been in Stockholm this week for World Water Week. It is always a good place to gauge the direction of thought in the humanitarian sector of the water industry. Here are my take-aways:
1) Corporate interest in water issues is beginning to flag: On the eve of the conference, the Water Footprint Network announced that it was closing down. It was set up in 2008 to help large corporations understand their water impact, but in recent years it has struggled to gain traction. That was to some extent inevitable – the water footprint concept failed to capture the complexity of water risk – but it is also a reflection of the fact that water risk is failing to capture the attention of the C-suite as it did three or four years ago. There were fewer new corporations attending SWWW, and there were fewer new initiatives aimed at the corporate sector announced at the event. I think that the main problem is that improved water stewardship is increasingly perceived as a drag on business, rather than an opportunity for it. For example, businesses commit a lot of time to supporting corporate water disclosure, but no one has done much to turn the resultant data into actionable information for investors or executives.
2) Safe water enterprises are in vogue: These are typically businesses which sell highly treated potable water from kiosks independently of government. Usually they are run on a for-profit basis, with the cashflows re-invested to build new outlets. In that sense, they offer the hope of a big impact without the need for continuous fund-raising. This makes them attractive propositions for foundations and family offices which want to get involved in solving the safe water supply problem. The next step for SWEs is to create an international quality standard which they can use to differentiate themselves from other private water vendors and gain greater acceptance as a key part of the solution to water access for the poor.
3) Customer engagement can break the deadlock in serving the urban poor: I have always felt that one of the biggest obstacles to extending water services to the poor was the high-minded decisions that politicians make on behalf of the people. Typically, politicians assume a very low willingness to pay and very high expectations of service, with the result that there is no sustainable business model to extend water networks and sanitation facilities beyond existing infrastructure. I was on a panel organised by Veolia to talk about engaging the disenfranchised in water governance. The star speaker was Neil Macleod, the former head of eThekwini Water. He is one of my personal water heroes, having created one of the highest performing utilities in Africa (it serves Durban and the surrounding region). He explained the system of customer outreach that he had introduced to engage communities in the discussion about what services they wanted and what services could be delivered. It had a dramatic effect on the support for the utility, reducing vandalism and depreciation rates and enabling a much more rapid roll-out of services than would otherwise have been the case. I was interested to know who in the community got most involved. He said the middle classes generally did not care about water because it was not a big spending priority, but for those getting by on $2 a day, being part of the decision-making process as to how they were to get improved access to water and sanitation was hugely important. The politicians and traditional leaders would come along to the meeting, but when they heard what the people were saying, they tended to forgo their own interests and become advocates of what everyone else wanted.
4) Sewers could soon be history: I never thought it could be done, but according to Macleod, who has worked with the Gates Foundation on its Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, attractive water-free toilets are close to becoming a reality. Step by step, the problems have been addressed. For example, new materials have been developed which are hydrophobic to the extent that nothing biological will adhere to them. There is still work to be done on the back end, but within three years we could be in a situation where sewer mains connected to centralised wastewater treatment plants are no longer an essential part of delivering high-quality urban sanitation. It could change a lot more than just the wastewater paradigm. 70% of domestic water demand is used to make conventional toilets and sewers work.
5) There is a revolution going on in the way we monitor bacteria in water: The Stockholm Junior Water Prize went to two students from the US who had developed a novel method of detecting bacteria in water. It can detect as little as one reproductive bacterial colony in a litre of water instantaneously (existing tests have much higher detection limits, and take one or two days to generate a result). it takes us one step closer to the holy grail of microbial monitoring, which is continuous real-time detection. This, together with the gene sequencing technologies which I wrote about last week – and which were also presented in Stockholm – created the overall impression that this is one of the fastest-moving areas of technology development in water at the moment.
6) The two big global initiatives are trundling along: The staff from the UN High Level Panel on Water were out in force. The focus of that group – which includes 11 heads of state who were not present – seems to be to develop a disruptive new approach to promoting the value of water. It is not going to be easy to come up with something that is more than motherhood and apple pie, but the process is in place. Sustainable Development Goal 6 also featured prominently on the agenda. The encouraging thing there is that the monitoring process is much more focused on meaningful performance improvement than was the case with the Millennium Development Goals. Much credit here should go to AquaFed – the federation representing private water operators – which consistently argued during the process of fixing the goals that it was not enough for a household to have a vaguely defined improved water source. Instead, piped household connections delivering potable water should be the standard to be measured on the drinking water side, while on the wastewater side, collection, treatment and disposal needed to be considered. It will shine a light on the crisis in the utility sector.