By David Wilcox
During 2011, Circle of Blue has collaborated with the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to report on energy demand and water supply in China. Their extensive coverage and reporting included over a dozen presentations of the results in China. The context for this coverage—called Choke Point: China—is positioned as follows:
“Over the last decade alone, 70 million new jobs emerged from an economy that this year, according to the World Bank and other authorities, generated the world’s largest markets for cars, steel, cement, glass, housing, energy, power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, highways, high-speed rail systems, airports and other basic supplies and civic equipment to support a modern economy.
Yet, like a tectonic fault line, underlying China’s new standing in the world is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress.”
Last week in Stockholm, the 23rd World Water Week convened and could have featured the tag line, Choke Point: World. Over 2600 water professionals (and semi-pros) gathered to focus on Water in an Urbanising World. (For an overview themes and participation at the conference, read Céline Hervé-Bazin’s post.)
Many thought leaders including Paul Reiter, CEO of the International Water Association (IWA), lauded China as a potential source for ideas and innovations. Motivated by those 70 million jobs and terrible conditions in rural areas, China is the most rapidly urbanizing country in world history. The challenges facing China’s urban leaders and planners are extensive. (While not mentioned at a conference with an urban focus, another indication of the connectedness of everything through water is the amount China will spend on rural water, sanitation and healthcare: $125 Billion.)
Assessing which problem is more challenging may be less productive than thinking about how both challenges could share technology, innovation and social enterprise approaches to make progress. China so far has not acknowledged the need for outside social enterprise or technology models, and is betting on competition between the provinces for innovation.
A New Style of Urbanization
At the first day plenary session, both Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat, and Sheela Patel, head of Shack/Slum Dwellers international, made a strong case that this is one of the most complex development challenges facing the world. According to Clos, “Every year the number of people who live in cities and town grows by 67 million – 91% of this figure is being added to urban populations in developing countries.” Unlike the urbanization that accompanied 19th century industrialization, this new urbanization often lacks the job and revenue base to invest in public services. Sheela Patel challenged leaders to seek cooperative solutions agreed to and supported by beneficiaries: “Participation does not mean bringing in the poor to rubber stamp a predetermined solution.”
Essentially every rapidly urbanizing city must be viewed as a resource poor environment. These circumstances require a combination of innovation, ingenuity and people that is simply not required in most high- and middle-income countries. Innovation in the coming century must come from these exigent environments. In the case of water, cities and countries recognize the need for a combination of tariffs and taxes, but the challenge in poor countries flows from compressed finances. According to Greg Browder of the World Bank, water can garner 2-4% of individual income—$1000 per person per year in rich countries, $200 in middle-income settings and $40 per person in poor countries.
The session on Integrated Urban Water Management Challenges was a microcosm of the overall conference. Here are a few of the @ReachScale tweets from that session:
Urban Water Mgt: 2-4% of income to water means: High income $1k/yr/person; mid=$200; low=$40; so mid 5x>low; high 5x>mid: Big Constraint
IWA Paul Reiter: Challenges in urban means urban must use 50% less as globally; 800k new urbanites added weekly!
IWA Paul Reiter: Challenges means new urban water systems in Asia & Africa must cost a fraction of current.
Urban must use 50% < water, as globally 800k new urbanites added weekly. If Ag water use 10% less; Amount for urban 2x.
Paul Reiter Point: Realities of Water Challenge are non-negotiable; Glenn Oroz Counterpoint: Realities require much Negotiation.
Global Water Intelligence through the Water Risk Index is one source for looking at the areas where challenges will be greatest: http://www.water-risk-index.com/index.html
Collaboration, Innovation and Investment to Succeed
In the case of water, we are all part of the potential solutions. Seeing the water fraternity hard at work to enhance collaboration provides the basic foundation for seeking solutions. Here are scenarios/suggestions for the kind of transformative changes IWA, SIWI, the World Bank and others insist are essential.
1. Agriculture is the center. New practices are needed to double agriculture production, protect natural systems and enhance global food security. As stated by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food:
“There is an urgent need to rethink current strategies for intensifying agriculture, given that food production already accounts for 70 to 90 percent of withdrawals from available water resources in some areas. The report, An Ecosystem Services Approach to Water and Food Security, finds that in many breadbaskets, including the plains of northern China, India’s Punjab and the Western United States, water limits are close to being ‘reached or breached.’”
2. The World as a Scaling and Learning Laboratory. In meeting after meeting, I saw studies and decks that talked about pilots, prototypes and tests. While there were a few exceptions – the Asian Development Bank’s remarkable progress with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System in Manila for one – too many projects were “learn now, scale later.” Mechanisms need to be developed to compare and promote the most scalable opportunities. This could include funding scaling learning labs and then funneling funding into the winners. Brookings along with the Shell Foundation and others funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency are developing thinking in this arena. Healthpoint Services with P&G have already embarked on scaling in India. Next year they will add scaling investors and journey to other countries.
Homi Kharas of Brookings pointed out in a call today that aid projects have actually been shrinking in scope in order to improve measurement. This runs smack against the non-negotiable realities of urban everything, including water. I spoke with country and DFI leaders at World Water Week that are concerned about the lack of scale. Turning this thinking and action around is critical.
3. Seeking social innovation and making it profitable. The only way to attract enough capital to fully address this problem is to identify the segments that are willing to pay and then deliver low-cost solutions that fund extensions further down the pyramid. In the early stages, focusing resources on getting profitable (or close to) is more important than studying impact.
Social enterprise models including for-profit, hybrid, leveraged and cross sector innovation models will be critical to attracting new capital sources. Social innovators often breach silos that an industry can’t see beyond. They also aggregate investments from multiple donor, DFI and profit-based sources to get to scale faster. In some cases these models will be superior; in others they can augment, so that less study is needed and more action can happen sooner. Both Water for People’s FLOW model and the Blue Planet Network are examples of these types of innovations.
Looking out to 2030, there is a shortage of innovators from inside water, as well as outside water. Not enough innovation is being crowd sourced, and not enough adjacent and non-adjacent innovators are engaged in the water challenges. Over the next decade, Millennials will create more social enterprises than those created to date. We need to make sure a significant share of those social innovators are working on scaling water and agriculture sustainably.
About David Wilcox
David Wilcox is the founder of ReachScale, an organization that aligns the social responsibility goals of corporations with high potential social entrepreneurs working in areas of common interest.
This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.
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