Council Post: Water Initiatives Provide Opportunity To Stem Crises Around The World

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Sadek Wahba, PhD is the founder, chairman & managing partner of I Squared Capital and a Senior Fellow at Development Research Institute, NYU

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COP26—the United Nations climate summit—came to a close in Glasgow last November with mixed and controversial results. But we have just months to prepare for the next one. COP27 is due to start November 7, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

That means it’s time to plan—and to look for ways to make the conference more effective than its predecessor. One major opportunity is to focus on a critical topic that COP26 neglected—water. The US can play a central role in moving it to the center of the global agenda—and in bringing technology to bear on the water crisis itself.

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COP26 focused on carbon and climate—and while there was renewed commitment toward limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, the practical recommendations on how to achieve 2030 targets came in for criticismparticularly after China and India intervened to weaken draft statements on the elimination of coal.

There was criticism as well that, in focusing so heavily on carbon-driven temperature increases, COP26 neglected other urgent issues, water chief among them.

In fact, it is safe to say that, while not diminishing in the least the urgency of action on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, the water crisis—itself the result of climate change among other factors—may be more immediate and more immediately severe . Water supply is quickly becoming a geopolitical flashpoint.

For an example of the scope of the crisis and its potential impact, look no further than China, which represents 20% of the world’s population but has only 7% of its freshwater supply. A combination of climate change, unsustainable agriculture and pollution driven by industrialization has rendered 80%-90% of China’s groundwater and 50% of its river water undrinkable. To fight water pollution, China committed $100 billion to water clean-up projects in the first half of 2015 alone.

China’s water crisis has implications for international stability. A massive project to dam The Mekong River has led to drought and flooding throughout Southeast Asia. A significant amount of China’s water supply is held in areas such as Tibet. In 2005, the minister of water resources said that China must “fight for every drop of water or die,” and former premier Wen Jiabao said that water supply shortfall threatened “the very survival of the Chinese nation.”

Nor is China unique. The Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa face their own water crises—each with geopolitical implications, And in the US, water crises have unfolded, infamously in Flint, Michigan, but also in California, where drought and loss of snowpack have had a significant impact on the state’s rice farmers and wine growers and the ecosystem as a whole, and in Florida’s Everglades, where development-driven water contamination threatens South Florida’s ecosystem and its economic viability,

But in South Florida, a technology-driven solution is under development. The federal government, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, is planning and funding an Everglades restoration project—with a $3.4 billion reservoir as its centerpiece. The reservoir will redirect Lake Okeechobee’s water flows away from contaminated agricultural land and replenish the wetlands and the water supply.

Solutions like the Everglades restoration—and the know-how behind it—are ready for export. The infrastructure bill has included over $55 billion to upgrade the US water sector and another $50 billion to make it more resilient to climate, weather and cyberattack. There is extensive innovation in the field of water conservation, water treatment and recycling. This type of investment should be leveraged as an example of what America can offer in the field of infrastructure to the rest of the world. The US should make sure it has the spotlight at COP27 and beyond.

There are several points to be made about these water initiatives. The first is that technologic and engineering innovation is capable of mitigating severe climate impacts—not eliminating them but limiting their impact. The second is that, contrary to developing-world skepticism, there is a demonstrable economic return on the investment. It is an immediate growth driver. The third is that initiatives such as this one are the result of systematic planning. They are not ad hoc, one-off projects.

Elsewhere I have discussed the need for a systematic approach to allocating funds to key infrastructure projects. The water crisis demands this. Establishing and modernizing water infrastructure should have critical priority given the urgency of the water crisis, the fact that water is a basic need for all and the fact that, like all effective infrastructure investment, it drives growth and reduces income inequality.

COP27 can point the way toward investing in infrastructure and programmatic solutions to protect water resources. These should include modern irrigation and distribution systems (which should also mitigate inequitable water distribution, improvements in agriculture, protection of the aquifer (the porous rock layer that stores most groundwater) through both physical means and regulation; and development of, new, advanced, climate-friendly desalination and purification systems. And most fundamentally, the world should reverse the climate trends that have the greatest impact on water supply.

While the task list is daunting, the water crisis is in fact solvable, if investors and world leaders act now, and at scale. COP27 should be the decisive first step.


Forbes Finance Council is an invitation-only organization for executives in successful accounting, financial planning and wealth management firms. Do I qualify?


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