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November 14, 2008

All Water is Local

When most people think of the hydrological cycle, they picture the simple diagram taught in grade school for decades. Water evaporates from the oceans, lakes, and rivers; it condenses and forms clouds; the clouds produce rain; the rain feeds the rivers, lakes and oceans, and the cycle repeats. For many, that is the extent of their knowledge on where water comes from and how it moves around the planet. That is all they will ever have to know.

The diagram is still accurate, of course, in a very basic sense. But those that study the hydrological cycle for a living realize now that it is far more complicated than we ever imagined. Human actions are making constant changes to the quality, direction, and state of water the world over. How ground water moves and recharges is still largely a mystery. And changes in climate and biological evolution are forcing us to literally relearn everything we thought we knew about water, challenging basic assumptions about the world’s most precious resource.

Among the new findings -- and one that was discussed at length during the final Deep Dive on Water and the Oceans this week in Rio de Janeiro – is that what we once thought were universal principles about water are turning out to be highly variable and localized. No two river basins are exactly the same. No two coasts, cities, wells, or fields act the same. A highly complex mix of characteristics -- from soil content to air quality to local politics to biodiversity to human activity – make each country, city, and neighborhood totally unique. As such, the approaches we take to water management need to be tailored to the specific water profile of the area.

There was wide agreement among the participants of the Rio de Janeiro deep dive on this point. The meeting had business, academic, political, and non-profit leaders from all over Latin America in attendance, including representatives from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico. Each one had wildly different water-related challenges facing their countries. Even within Brazil the issues varied, depending on the region, or even neighborhood.

That’s why some participants felt it was critical to break the problems down site by site, using existing technologies to address them, and paying close attention to the natural state of the micro-ecosystems. “The choice of technology is critical,” said Adalberto Noyola Robles, Department Director at the Instituto Ingenieria of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. “There are multiple climates and multiple challenges, so each solution must be a localized, optimal solution for that natural environment.”

This concept goes beyond the ever-popular “one bite at a time” philosophy toward major projects. It advocates a thoughtful approach and necessary harmony with local environments. And it is quite possibly the only way to tackle a problem as geopolitically complex as water.

This was the final of our eight deep dives on this topic, but over the coming weeks we’ll continue to build out some of the themes that were explored during our meetings. In the meantime, we’ll be hard at work putting together the report that will  synthesize these many findings and spur further conversation on this fascinating and important topic.

November 14, 2008 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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 | Comments (4) | TrackBack