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November 07, 2008

From Famine to Feast

In all the hand-waving and dire rhetoric about climate change and water scarcity, it’s easy to lose sight of one very important fact: not all parts of the world are facing water shortages. In fact, some places have the complete opposite problem: too much water. Amsterdam is one of those places.

The Netherlands is nearly two-thirds below sea level and is built upon a massive multi-river delta, leaving the Dutch with the unenviable task of managing the dual threats of rising sea levels and river flooding. They are the world’s leading experts at managing an overabundance of water, with over 800 years of experience and a dizzying array of canals and dikes, each more technologically advanced than the last. They are well-equipped to withstand the worst that nature can dish out.

As such, Amsterdam was an obvious choice for holding a Global Innovation Outlook discussion on Water and the Oceans. Whereas our previous meetings had all been held in water-scarce regions (Atlanta, San Diego, Dubai, and Singapore), this was the first time we had a chance to discuss the challenges facing those regions that are on the receiving end of the world’s water supply. One would think that The Netherlands' problems would be significantly different than those of Dubai. But surprisingly, their needs are strikingly similar.

Representatives from some of the world’s leading private sector companies, academic institutions, governments and non-profits came together from Hungary, Israel, South Africa, Ireland, England, Italy, Switzerland, and Holland to echo the lament of previous discussion on this topic: we need more data. Whether you have been abandoned by water or inundated by it, the thirst for more, better, and regular data is universal.

But this group took the discussion to the next level and began to offer practical, even affordable ways to collect, and analyze that data. The challenge with collecting data is not technological. We could blanket the earth with sensors and collect billions of data points every day. The problem is simply that there is no natural business incentive to do so. There is no customer, no market ready and willing to pay for the data. The usual suspects (governments, insurance companies, and academia) either don’t have the budgets or political will to make the investments necessary to fund such a massive project.

But the GIO participants in this session offered several concrete ways to fix this problem. For example, there are ways to collect data points relatively cheaply by leveraging existing infrastructure. One participant suggested that every ship and airplane be outfitted with sensor devices, capturing temperature readings, salinity, CO2 levels, etc. This would be very easy to do, relatively cheap, and the data would be highly valuable.

But this doesn’t solve the problem of who is going to pay for the data. Some participants suggested a tool that would aggregate not only these new data points, but also existing data points from the private and public sectors, and offer the search and analysis of that pool as a service. This clearing house for water-related data could also take advantage of unused, but valuable, data; for example data that was captured for one specific purpose, but is relevant to many others. Participants were split on whether the real value, and therefore the market,  was in the data itself, or in the interpretation of it.

Another topic we spent significant time discussing was the relationship between water and energy. Many in the meeting felt that the first step towards solving the freshwater problems of the world was solving the energy crisis. The thinking was that if we had access to unlimited, cheap, clean energy, we would be able to desalinate or otherwise treat sufficient amounts of freshwater around the world. Ironically, many point to water itself as the source of that energy. And so the circle goes.

And finally, there was universal agreement that water has an image problem. Lost in the shadow of alternative energy, climate change, and now the global financial crisis, water is struggling to register on the radars of average global citizens. There were many calls for an “Al Gore of Water,” or some such catalyst that could create the buzz of a cause celebre for water. Of course, if we manage to solve some of the problems popularized by Al Gore in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, we may not have such severe water problems anyway.

Lots more to discuss from this meeting, and an equally fascinating meeting coming up in Rio de Janeiro next week, another place with an abundance of water.

November 7, 2008 | Permalink


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It was such an interesting and inspiring event in Amsterdam. And YES - we need a
"Water GOOGLE" - that entrepreneurs and organisations see the chances and not the risks ! Thanks for the event - Thomas from http://www.cleantech-europe.com

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