Access to water is one of the greatest challenges to business continuity and growth. Businesses across a range of sectors – from energy to agriculture to food and beverage – are discovering the importance of water use across their value chain. They are investing in access to water supplies as well as improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of operational infrastructure and assets to manage water.
Businesses also have a critical role to play in ensuring access to water for their customers, workforce and communities. Added urgency comes from the growing pressure from consumers, customers, investors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society for companies to be “brands with purpose.” That certainly includes consideration about how businesses are stewards for water.
The harsh reality is that water is finite, increasing in demand, poorly governed, undervalued and there is no replacement. Roughly four billion people live in water-scarce and water-stressed regions. Nearly one billion lack access to safe drinking water, and almost one million deaths per year are attributable to water-borne diseases. The 2030 Water Resources Group projected that by 2030 the world faces a 40 percent gap between water supply and demand if business continues as usual, including regarding public policy and use of technology.
Enter digital solutions like AI, IoT and remote sensing. They will have an ever-increasing role to play in addressing water risks to business continuity and growth across value chains. A lesson that has become increasingly clear from the COVID-19 pandemic is that analog solutions to water management are no longer viable to ensure sustainable and resilient operations.
AI Takes Center Stage in Solving Water
AI must be at the forefront of solving challenges regarding water quantity and quality. By fundamentally changing how work gets done, companies can take a big leap forward toward solving the challenges related to water management in their operations. For example, several food and beverage companies are using AI technologies to manage water use to achieve their commitment to the Alliance for Water Stewardship.
and/or their overall sustainability goals. The adoption of digital water technologies is now accelerating in both the industrial and water utility sectors in response to increasing issues of water scarcity and poor quality. . The COVID-19 pandemic is making that even more urgent. It has led to a growing focus on business continuity and resiliency for the industrial and utility sectors.
Several recent reports highlight the ongoing digital transformation of water. In particular, Digital Water: Industry Leaders Chart the Digital Transformation from the International Water Association and Xylem, as well as the report Accelerating the Digital Water Utility focus on water and wastewater utilities and geographically-focused digital water technology solutions.
AI and digital solutions in general can provide remote monitoring and control of processes and critical infrastructure, ensuring continuity in service when, for example, staff is dispersed, as it often has been recently. Such technologies can help augment decreased and strained resources and mitigate the risks of business interruptions. Digital technologies are also often used to monitor real-time water quality within a watershed.
Businesses Must Help Solve Water
Businesses have an important role to play in solving water scarcity and quality challenges. Those that address these challenges not only mitigate their own risks. They also contribute to solutions in the public sector within watersheds where they operate and more broadly, for all of society.
Businesses have both an opportunity and a responsibility to create value by solving water challenges. For example, AB InBev, through its 100+ Accelerator, is supporting the commercialization of innovative technologies to monitor water quality on a real time basis. Two companies from the accelerator cohort include Gybe, which provides real-time data to make management decisions for improved water stewardship, and spout, an at-home, fast and simple, water-quality testing solution. Helping to mobilize innovators like this benefits the public sector, society and businesses.
Digital technologies and transformation in the water utility and industrial sectors alone will not solve 21st-century water challenges. Public and private sector enterprises need to work together to adopt a culture of innovation and learn to scale digital technology solutions. But digital water technologies are a critical component for water stewardship , and AI will continue to lead advancement in sustainable corporate water strategy.
Will Sarni is founder and CEO of Water Foundry, (a strategic advisory firm), and an internationally-recognized leader on water strategy, innovation, and sustainability.