Water scarcity creates needs for investment

Interview with Will Sarni, Director and Practice Leader, Enterprise Water Strategy, Deloitte

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From Fortune Brainstorm Green to SXSW Eco and beyond, Will Sarni is one of world’s most sought-after speakers on global water and sustainability issues — and with good reason. Author of Corporate Water Strategies and Water Tech: A Guide to Investment, Innovation and Business Opportunities in the Water Sector and director and practice leader for enterprise water strategy with Deloitte Consulting LLP, he advises some of the world’s leading companies on water-related risks looming over business and industry. Ensia caught up with Sarni at his home base in Denver.

Why is water risk such a global concern?
If you look at projections of supply versus demand, assuming business as usual, globally there’s roughly a 40 percent shortfall that’s projected by 2030. In certain countries it’s a little bit less, others a little bit more, and really what it takes into account is there’s this increase in demand for a finite resource. So population growth, increasing economic activity, increased urbanization, demand for energy, agriculture, changing diets are all coming together to form this perfect storm that’s driving more and more demand for this finite resource.

Over the past few years the number of investors calling for greater corporate transparency on water has quadrupled. What’s the main driver?
Two big factors are education and awareness. More and more stakeholders are becoming aware that water scarcity is a business issue. And if it’s a business issue, then it’s an issue for investors. Investors are really looking to understand what business risk might be tied back to water vulnerability. The flip side to that is, in certain sectors and certain companies it’s a business opportunity. If you’re in the business of water treatment or information technology, then your business can potentially grow to address some of these critical resource issues.

What are some of the budding water-related cleantech business opportunities?
There’s certainly a lot going on in water treatment. How do you treat water with less energy and fewer chemicals? Also, efficiency is a big trend. More people are asking, “How do you do more with less?”

Big data is also growing in importance. How do you collect water data, analyze it and visualize how to manage it? It’s essentially the application of big data into sectors like agriculture and elsewhere. I think that holds a lot of promise. If you can understand how you’re using a resource, then you can better manage it.

Irrigation is one of the biggest water users on the planet. Is that another area that’s ripe for innovation?
Absolutely. You have a big move towards precision agriculture and smart agriculture using drip irrigation technologies, as opposed to flood irrigation. We’re also seeing food and beverage companies essentially reach into their agricultural supply chain to help them improve efficiency of their use of water.

Shifting gears, you’ve written in the past about “green performance.” What’s your take on sustainability’s position in the business world?
I think it’s essentially mainstream now. And I think companies to varying degrees understand the value that it brings to their business through reduced operating costs and increased revenue. Now the question is, how do you connect sustainability initiatives at the company level to consumers and stakeholders that care so they can gravitate towards what you have to offer? That connection between sustainability programs and digital marketing and leveraging social media is an interesting trend also.

What do you think some of the emerging sustainability trends might be over the next year or so?
I think sustainable consumption will be one — reaching out to consumers directly to improve sustainability. I think resource risk issues are another emerging trend — water being one of them — as a constraint for growth, essentially. I think there will be growing interest around reporting disclosure and transparency, especially in the world of water. I also think big data — the ability to collect large bodies of data, make sense of it and then report out performances — will continue to grow in importance.

What’s surprised you the most in your years of working on sustainability issues?
I think the progress we’ve made and the progress we haven’t made. That’s going to sound [like] a bit of a contradiction, but 10 years ago few people knew what I did. Now I can tell people I’m a sustainability consultant and I focus on water, and they’re like, “Yeah, cool, I get it.” In 10 years sustainability has pretty much become mainstream.

On the other hand, there’s so much more to be done. And it’s just gotten more and more sophisticated as to what people are doing and how they’re dealing with some of these key issues.

With the scale and complexity of sustainability challenges increasing, what gives you hope that we’ll figure things out in time?
By nature I’m a hopeful person. I don’t think you can do work on these issues and not be. So, I believe in our ability to change, to adapt and to innovate, not just on the technology side, but on the partnership side. If I think about what’s going on in the world of water, exciting innovation opportunities around partnership are taking place in addition to the technology piece. That gives me hope. Going back to your earlier question about the 40 percent [global water] shortfall, that assumes business as usual — and I don’t believe in business as usual.

Editor’s note:  This interview originally appeared in Ensia magazine here.

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