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October 31, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the toughest nut to crack in the GIO study of Water and the Oceans is also the biggest: agriculture.

Though the subject of sustainable agriculture comes up often in our meetings – rightfully so, considering that 80 percent of the world’s freshwater resources are used for growing food – it is almost always accompanied by heavy sighs and impromptu bathroom breaks. It is a subject that tries the patience of even the most passionate water management experts. It is highly emotional, and often political.

Indeed, addressing sustainable agriculture is not easy. But nobody said this was going to be easy. We have heard many viable strategies that would ease the agricultural demand on freshwater resources. Drought resistant seeds show promise. Drip irrigation is appropriate for certain crops. And only planting crops that are appropriate for the climate in which they are grown is a popular suggestion.

All of these things are important steps towards meeting the world’s growing demand for both food and water. But one can’t help wondering: Are we thinking big enough? For example, if all the regional climates of the world are going to be changing significantly in the next 50 years, do we need to start shifting the world’s agricultural centers today? Will the vast farm plots of the Midwestern United States need to be moved north into Canada? Can we grow sufficient quantities of food in indoor or even urban environments, without straining energy resources too much? In other words, will the next green revolution be truly green?

As you can see, these are big problems that require big thinking. We’re hoping to gain more insight on this are in our two remaining deep dives on Water and the Oceans, and would love any thoughts you might have on the subject. We’ll also be exploring the challenges and opportunities that come with having an over-abundance of water. Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro will be ideal locations for those discussions.

October 31, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 21, 2008

Urban Renewal

By any measure, Dubai is a new city. Its sparkling skyscrapers, utter modernity, and diversified economy all speak to new wealth and deliberate planning. And the continued building boom signals its future as a world-class center of commerce.

Because it is still growing, Dubai and the many urban centers here in the United Arab Emirates, have the luxury of learning from lifetimes of urban planning mistakes in the rest of the world. And because it is located in one of the most water-scarce regions on earth, it will have to take each of those lessons to heart.

As such, Dubai made a perfect setting for a Global Innovation Outlook deep dive that spent a great deal of time discussing the trends of urbanization and sustainable civil engineering. The meeting brought together representatives from all over the region, including Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Poland, Great Britain, and Russia. There were non-governmental organizations (WaterAid and Global Ethics Limited), universities (University of Bristol and University of KwaZulu-Natal), businesses (Dow and Royal Dutch Shell) and government officials (Ministry of Environment and Water, UAE.)

The conversation was wide ranging, touching on everything from pricing to the need for integrated solutions to water management. But more than any topic, that of the major water challenges faced by the world’s cities took center stage.

Urbanization is forever altering population densities around the world. In 1900, only 13 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, more than half of the world’s residents call a city home, a number that is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2030 (even amidst an overall population growth of nearly 50 percent.)

The effects of this trend on water management vary widely, but are significant and severe. In existing and ageing cities, the added burden on water supply, distribution and treatment systems will be overwhelming. Coastal cities will have to deal with the impact of increased runoff and waste on marine ecology. And cities that rely largely on desalination and other energy-intensive filtration technologies will require massive infrastructure development, at a high cost to both taxpayers and the environment.

Without reversing the urbanization trend (which some participants favored), these issues need to be addressed, and fast. There are a number of things that need to be done, such as fixing leakage in older city pipes, which can lose between 15 and 30 percent of their payload. But this is a fantastically expensive proposition, one that requires digging up thousands of kilometers of city streets. There are creative ways to spread those costs around however.

“If I had a wish, it would be that you would not be able dig a hole in London without every utility in the city getting a crack at it,” said Larry Hirst, Chairman of IBM Europe, Middle East, and Africa. “Gas companies, electricity utilities, and telcos all need to get in there to upgrade their systems. So why not do it all at once?”

There was also major concern about how waste water is treated and returned into the environment in these cities. Some participants suggested taxing discharge rather than intake, which has the dual benefit of cleaning up the waste and curbing demand. Others had more innovative, if not universally appealing, suggestions.

Christopher Buckley is the leader of the Pollution Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He favors the process of urine diversion toilets, which use no water to flush and separate so-called “yellow” waste from “black” waste. The idea is to use the nutrients in the yellow waste as fertilizer for crops, and extract energy from the black waste. The western world may turn its nose up at this approach, but the results are undeniable, and the process not only doesn’t use any energy, it produces it.

In other parts of the world, cities are literally being built from scratch. In Abu Dhabi, for example, a new “green city” called Masdar City, is under construction. Masdar, which means “the source” in Arabic, will use only renewable sources of energy, have zero carbon emissions, and zero waste. It will cost $22 billion, take 8 years to build, and be inhabited by 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. Planners are still working out the details of how water will be supplied, distributed and reused, but it is likely to be a model for the many other cities being built throughout the world, including the so-called “Eco-Cities” under construction in China.

It’s easy to be cynical about the human race and the many mistakes we’ve made over the years. But seeing some of the progress and planning going into our future living environments is indeed encouraging. And seeing the passion and commitment of the people in the Dubai deep dive gives you the undeniable impression that the glass is half full.

October 21, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 16, 2008

A Complex System

Singapore rests at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is a 700 square kilometer island city-state that is blessed with a world-class shipping port, an industrious and innovative workforce, and absolutely no natural freshwater resources of any kind. None. Zero.

Yet somehow, despite a complete lack of this most basic resource, this tiny island nation has not only survived but thrived since it gained independence in 1963. In fact, it has been called the “hydro-hub” of the world, boasting some of the most sophisticated technologies and systems designed to collect, treat, and reuse water supplies.

Today, through a so-called “four-tap” approach, Singapore boasts sufficient water supplies for its more-than 4 million citizens and multi-billion-dollar industries. It uses a water catchment system that collects rainwater from nearly half the land area of the island, recycling facilities that produce NEWater (a branded product for both potable and industrial use), some of the largest desalination plants in the world, and a continuing but diminishing import strategy from its neighboring Malaysia.

That’s why the Global Innovation Outlook held simultaneous deep dives on both fresh and oceanic water systems yesterday. And the results were what you would expect from this hotbed of hydrology. The meetings drew from the considerable water expertise around Southeast Asia. Business, academic, and government leaders from Singapore, Vietnam, The Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, India, China and Indonesia were engaged in two different discussions on two seemingly different topics. But in the end, they both said the same thing.

“These are not separated systems,” said one participant. “We need to connect all the dots, and start treating these problems in a holistic way.” Indeed, though much of the scientific and academic communities have often approached the challenges of fresh and ocean water as two distinct areas of study, the feeling among this group was that those days are over.

The intricacies and interdependencies of the world’s water systems have come into shocking relief in just the last few decades. Rivers that are damned and drawn down never reach the sea, creating massive repercussions to oceanic ecosystems and impacting fisheries and food supplies. Runoff from agricultural and domestic land uses of freshwater remake entire coastal zones in a matter of years. Groundwater aquifers are invaded and spoiled by seawater in coastal municipalities, necessitating drastic and urgent action to protect the drinking supply.

The list goes on. Up to now, we had been calling these points of intersection between fresh and salt water systems “convergence.” But in truth, this is not the right word at all, for these systems were never divergent in the first place. They are, of course, all part of the same closed system, and any action taken against one will invariably have a major impact on the other.

Indeed, we must approach water issues in a holistic, integrated manner. In fact, many participants pointed to the fact that we cannot simply (or not so simply) try to address the challenges facing the world’s water systems. We must also understand the complex relationship water systems have on climate change, energy production, and agriculture. For example, desalination has allowed many water-strained cities to survive, but the process is excessively energy intensive, has major impacts on greenhouse gases, and increases the salinity of the adjacent sea water. As usual, there are no easy answers.

Water, food, energy, and climate. These are all complex, inextricably linked systems that require smarter management. Any attempt to address one cannot be taken seriously without taking each of them into account. And when viewed in this way, the challenge ahead of is undeniably daunting. But as one GIO participant reminded us: “You cannot try to swallow an elephant. You must eat it one bite at a time.”

Check back for more specific examples of which bites to take first. We had some fruitful discussions on sustainable agriculture, supplying water in developing countries, and advances that can be made in the global shipping industry. And next week we’ll visit Dubai, where desalination is king.

October 16, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 10, 2008

Water Management Survey

In our first two deep dives on Water and the Oceans, GIO participants repeatedly bemoaned the lack of data on water management. Whether it was the vast and deep oceans, the mysterious path of ground water, or our own everyday use (and abuse) of freshwater supplies, it seems everyone still has a lot to learn about this most precious of resources.

To that end, IBM has developed the Advanced Water Management Survey. It’s a simple questionnaire intended to get a baseline reading on industrial water management practices around the world. Things like: What are the most costly parts of water management? Or: How cost-justified are the different areas of water management?

Click here to take the survey and check back with the Corporate Water Footprinting event in San Francisco this December to see the results. We realize this small amount of information is merely a drop in the bucket, but every little bit counts.

October 10, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 07, 2008

Pricing Wars

For those of you inclined to engage in a philosophical discussion on whether water is a basic human right or an over-regulated, inaccurately priced commodity, log onto The Economist Web site for an online debate.

The Economist debate, sponsored by The Dow Chemical Company, a Global Innovation Outlook Partner, features some of the highest level discourse you’re going to find on this endlessly complicated, impossibly emotional topic. The basic proposition is this: Water, as a scarce resource, should be priced according to its market value.”

It is a theme that has come up time and again during our deep dives on Water and the Oceans. Those that advocate market pricing believe it is the only way to improve the efficiency of the distribution of water. Those opposed to market pricing believe that life-threatening inequalities will result if water is seen as anything but a shared resource.

As always, there are shades of gray however. Some of the participants in the GIO have proposed some clever strategies for driving more equitable distribution of water supplies. For example, there are tiered pricing models that would grant all human beings (and businesses) a predetermined amount of water units. This public allotment would be free and sufficient for all basic needs. But anything above and beyond that usage would cost extra. As your usage ratchets up, you pay greater dollar amounts for each additional usage. You would have plenty of water for drinking and bathing, but if you want to water your lawn as well, you might have to pay 50 cents a liter (don’t get hung up on these hypothetical prices.) Filling up the swimming pool might get you into the $1.50 range. And so on.

It’s hard to imagine one system working on a global basis (anything’s possible, right?). But you could see it working regionally. Of course, some would argue that this is already happening. I personally pay for my water (both by paying the private company that provides it, and through the taxes that pay to treat my waste water.) Bottled water is a $100 billion business. Even homeowners that drink well water pay for drilling and maintenance of the system (those of us who have incurred this particular expense know that the water that runs beneath our feet is anything but free).

In all these cases the vast majority of the costs are not the water itself. It is the distribution of the water. As one GIO participant noted, “God gave us the water, he just forgot to lay the pipes.” Which brings us back to the premise upon which this entire GIO is based: there is plenty of water in the world, it’s just not well distributed.

October 7, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack