In February 2017, the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit returned to London for the 6th year, focused on the need for greater collaboration between stakeholders in creating a better approach to future water sustainability. The importance of this year’s meeting could not be underestimated. As the delegates shared their knowledge networks, it was appreciated that access to water remained a major issue for billions of people.

Water crises are the biggest threat to global security. Unprecedented water shortages, flooding and environmental degradation have created inequalities across the world. The World Economic Forum Global Risks 2015 report listed water as the top risk to global socio-economic development. Today, we face serious issues about how we deal with not only the current, but future challenges of water sustainability. From severe droughts in Africa, ice melts in the Antarctica, and unusual temperature variations in many other parts of the world, adverse impact are undeniable. Similarly, growing global population is increasing the shocks and stresses, adding to the vulnerability of local communities.

Society’s need for water is vital, at the epicentre of our livelihood and human survival. As we face these challenges, there is need to develop new ways to test drought resilience of supply systems taking into account increased urbanisation and other impacts. Engaging some of the world’s leading companies will support the development of innovative and sustainable integrated water plans, build resilience and critical water infrastructure. As an example, Amec Foster Wheeler helps clients tackle the issues head on, bringing global expertise to water policies, planning and engineering.

Collaborative research will secure the future

But, more can be done. Collaborative research into efficient water management will steer innovation priorities. It offers environmental and economic benefits in the context of rising populations, which is expected to put water supplies under further strain. Yet, to achieve these goals requires substantial investment and commitment. A clear winner is NERC, the UK’s largest funder of independent environmental science, training and innovation, delivered through university research centres. The organisation collaborates with India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences on a £6 million research program on sustainable water resources using ‘whole systems’ approach to develop models that can forecast future trends and the impact of climate change, land-use, population growth and urbanisation on water resources. If successful, it will help deliver India’s aim of sustainably managing water resources. And, that’s not all. A new £10 million NERC investment will enable scientists work on research projects to shed light on how life in the Arctic Ocean is coping with environmentally dramatic changes. Understanding how marine life responds, today, would most certainly help scientists predict future changes.

Climate Change poses a big challenge

There are persistent challenges to addressing the lack of alignment between research and development, to create new opportunities and commercialise marketable products. Still, a fragmented industry offers huge opportunities for the water technology industry as well as the fields of energy, food security, ecosystem services and resilience hazards. Developing these opportunities will produce substantial collateral benefits, including carbon reduction and secure agricultural production. To achieve that, every nation needs a fresh vision to secure its water supplies for future generations, in the face of climate and demographic change. Water, being vital for our health and welfare will enable the technology advancement to food security and ecosystem services. There is a need to build resiliency and accelerate the pace of innovation. To achieve that will require a new approach to designing infrastructure and investment models. Well-coordinated strategies could create a sharp focus on commercial opportunities aligned with customer needs, and inevitably lead to water sustainability driving global socio-economic growth.

Keys to success: Investment and Innovation

There is no doubt that success may lie with increasing investments in infrastructure. For example, Smart irrigation will mean using less water and delivering higher crop yields through soil-moisture monitoring and drip irrigation. Smart distribution will also achieve better leakage detection, and Smart water usage will optimise rainwater harvesting as well as systems for recycling wastewater. Technological innovation, albeit disruptive, is pivotal to achieving transformative long-term success. A case in point, is in the emerging markets, where mobile communications have enabled low income consumers to make payments remotely for water, sanitation and other utility services.

By 2050, it’s estimated that global agricultural output will need to increase by 60% on current levels to meet demand for food. Agricultural output on such a scale will put an increased strain on resources such as water, with lack of fresh water already being an acute problem. As a result, the use of desalination and seawater greenhouses as an alternative method of farming is expected to rise quickly to meet growing demand. In arid regions, desalination technologies powered by solar energy, can vastly expand water supplies. Falling input prices and increasing efficiency, particularly of solar PV now make this a unique business opportunity. Other technologies may have already been developed that could contribute to meeting the current challenges, but many more will be needed if global water sustainability goals are to be met.