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Bio & Life Sciences Innovation Sustainable Development Goals

Tech and Innovation Offer Promise for the World’s Most Water-Challenged Regions

It is estimated that currently 844 million people live without clean water, and 2.3 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation, according to water.org. Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population, and this figure is projected to rise due to increased demand and the impacts of climate change. Climate change itself has increased the occurrence and severity of floods and other water-related disasters with 70 percent of all deaths caused by natural disasters.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 – Ensuring water and sanitation for all by 2030 – was established to address water as a critical societal and economic need. Even before the pandemic, the world was not on track to meet SDG 6. According to the March 2021 Summary Progress Report prepared by UN Water, many water sources are drying up, becoming more polluted, or both. Water-intensive industry, agriculture, and energy generation are growing to meet the needs of an ever-expanding population, resulting in further water scarcity and stress.

If we are not on track to achieve SDG 6 and address a broader range of water-related issues, the question becomes, what else can we do to solve water?

I have a point of view that the private sector, coupled with catalyzing the investor community to support innovative water technology entrepreneurs and their startups, is part of the answer. The private sector has increasingly engaged in addressing wicked water problems  by working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders. In a few cases, private sector companies have also established water investment funds through their climate funds (Microsoft), as a Limited Partner in a water technology venture fund (Microsoft and Ecolab), or established a sustainability start-up accelerator (AB InBev 100+ Accelerator).

We can mobilize investors (think: foundations, family offices, multinationals) to directly invest in water technology start-ups and growth-stage companies to solve water scarcity, quality, access, and equity issues. The opportunity is to bring in investors that have an interest in solving water but historically have not ventured into this investment area. I also believe that water is fundamentally a local issue and, as a result, focusing on investment within a specific watershed mobilizes constituents that care personally about local water issues.

The  Colorado River Basin: A case study

The Colorado River Basin (CRB) is an excellent example of a watershed that is water-challenged. Perhaps more importantly, the watershed is coming to grips with dated public policy, overallocation, and the impacts of climate change. While NGOs and the private sector are active in the Colorado River Basin, there is an opportunity to catalyze the water technology entrepreneurs and investors to tackle wicked water problems at a local scale.

For background, the American West – including the cities of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver, falling under the reaches of the greater CRB – is now among the world’s most water-stressed regions facing the environmental, economic and social challenges of increased water scarcity. In addition to its environmental role, the economic importance of the CRB cannot be overstated. The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming which is equivalent to about 1/12 of the total gross domestic product in the U.S.  It is estimated that if 10 percent of the river’s water were unavailable (a decline quite possible under projected climate change scenarios of 10 to 30 percent flow reductions by 2050) there would be a loss of $143 billion in economic activity and 1.6 million jobs, in just one year.

The value of the CRB has prompted actions by organizations such as Encourage Capital and the Walton Family Foundation to address the need for greater investment in solving water challenges within the watershed through their Liquid Assets project. I also believe that further investment is needed, not just in projects but in water technology companies.

The CRB can be viewed as a strategic “testbed” to determine the feasibility of emerging technological solutions for subsequent application in the global water sector. As a result, the Colorado River Basin Fund  was launched on World Water Day 2021, as the first of its kind place-based water technology investment fund focused on addressing technology solutions in water treatment (e.g., reuse and recycling), conservation (e.g., water efficiency), alternative water supply (e.g., air moisture capture and solar desalination), localized water treatment systems, and alternative agriculture (aquaculture and vertical/urban farming). The CRB fund will also focus on accelerating the adoption of digital water technology solutions in satellite and aerial artificial intelligence and blockchain applications.

A couple of examples of how digital water technologies are addressing water issues are Gybe and True Elements. Gybe uses satellite imagery and on-the-ground hardware products to monitor surface water quality, conservation, and the restoration of aquatic ecosystems. True Elements with their TrueQI™ solution provides accurate, sophisticated, near real-time water quality reporting, indexing, and forecasting for anywhere in the US. These digital water tech companies are changing the way data are collected and turned into actionable information. Real-time and predictive analytics results in more efficient and effective decisions on water management and stewardship.

Initiatives such as the Liquid Assets project, the Colorado River Basin Fund, and the Nasdaq Veles Water Index, which benchmarks the spot price of water in the state of California, bring innovative technologies, investors, and financial tools to address 21st-century water challenges. Mobilizing all stakeholders to solve watershed-scale issues has promised to finally deliver on our commitments to universal access to water for economic development, business growth, social wellbeing, and ecosystem health.

Will Sarni is the Founder and CEO of Water Foundry and Founder and General Partner of the Colorado River Basin Fund.

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