Op-Ed: The Frontier Series: Tackling water woes

January 18, 2018

Will Sarni is a leading innovator and investor in the global water industry. He has authored numerous books and articles and presented on the value of water, innovations in digital water technology, the circular economy and the energy-water-food nexus. He has been a water strategy advisor to private and public-sector enterprises and NGOs, working with multinational companies across a range of industry sectors in evaluating the technical viability and market potential of innovative water technologies, market entry strategies and M&A programs.

Hank Torbert, a founder of The Frontier Conference, interviews Sarni about the industry’s ongoing transformation.


Will Sarni

Will, you have deep experience in the water industry. Can you tell me a little about you and your background?

I started my career as a hydrogeologist working on water supply and large contaminant hydrology (e.g., Superfund) projects throughout the US. Around 1999, I became aware of, and ultimately hooked, on sustainability and pivoted my environmental consulting firm to be a leading sustainability strategy firm. We focused on water, renewable energy, climate change and green building programs. Over the past 10 years I have focused exclusively on providing water strategy and technology innovation advisory services primarily to private sector companies.

In my opinion, the water industry is experiencing its own “industrial revolution.” Why is the industry so important now? Is the industry positioned to grow? Why is water referred to as the new “oil” globally?

I agree with your view of the water sector and trends. The water sector is undergoing a transformation as the reality of water scarcity and poor water quality impacts the private and public sectors. These private and public sector actors include water and wastewater utilities, companies, governments and civil society. As a result, there is a movement to develop innovative solutions in technology, financing, business models and partnerships. In particular, digital technology solutions are gaining interest and scale with utilities and industrial companies and also a move by the public sector to better understand water data to inform public policy.

With regards to water as the new oil – we can do without oil, but not water.

Who are the major players in the sector and what is the total market size?

Major players in the water sector include private and public utilities (e.g., American Water, Severn Trent, DC Water), solution providers (e.g., SUEZ, Veolia, Ecolab), technology providers (e.g., Xylem, Badger Meter), water technology accelerators (e.g., ImagineH2O, WaterStart), consulting and engineering firms (e.g., MWH/Stantec, Arup) and multinationals (The Coca Cola Company, Nestle SA).

The market size is difficult to estimate as it can include all of the stakeholder categories mentioned above. However, to give you a sense of one aspect of the market, the global water treatment market is estimated at $600bn – $800bn pa).

What are the key drivers transforming the water industry? And what are new technologies and innovations that we should be focused on?

The major drivers transforming the industry include: water scarcity, poor water quality, Sustainable Development Goals – SDG 6 (universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene), climate change impacts and costs to repair and replace aging water infrastructure. My view is that the major innovation trends are in digital solutions (e.g., remote sensing, IoT and AI), real time water quality monitoring, decentralized and distributed water treatment, alternative water supplies (e.g., Zero Mass Water), innovative business models (e.g., water as a service), innovative financing (e.g., green bonds and blended finance) and partnerships (e.g., water funds).

Are there recent occurrences that underscore why the industry and proliferation of new technologies are so important?

Flint, Michigan was an eye-opener in the U.S. and has catalyzed technology innovation in water quality monitoring and alternative sources of water. Other issues such as water scarcity (the “drought”) in California and the western U.S., overextraction of groundwater in the Central Valley of California and the Ogallala Aquifer, saltwater intrusion, urban stormwater management and the energy – water – food nexus stress (no water no food, etc.).

What are other industries whose growth is tied to the water management sector? For instance, energy.

We need water for agricultural production and for thermoelectric power generation. In the U.S. we use about 41 percent for thermoelectric power generation (non-consumptive use) and the same amount for agricultural production. We also need water for other industrial uses such as heavy manufacturing and semiconductor manufacturing. AS a client of mine says, no water – no beer.

Louisiana and other areas are well positioned to have robust water management eco-systems and be hotbeds for innovation in the sector. What can we do better to bring more companies here and expand our base in the water management sector?

I agree. We need to mobilize industry, academic institutions, public sector leaders, non-governmental organizations and the entrepreneurial community to build a water technology hub/accelerator. This would be similar to Water Start in Las Vegas, Current in Chicago along with ImagineH2O in San Francisco. These hubs/accelerators have a global reach.

What is your vision for the water industry?

Greater adoption of innovative technologies, financing, business models and partnerships. Also, changes in public policy (e.g., western water law, water trading) need to catch up to the realities of water scarcity – essentially the new normal. Finally, we need to do a much better job of bringing in outsiders into the sector to provide a fresh view of innovative solutions. Organizations such as ImagineH2O, 101010.net and prize competitions have proven successful in accelerating innovation by engaging entrepreneurs from outside the water sector.

Op-Ed: The Frontier Series: Tackling water woes

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