Nature and Biodiversity

How innovation and collaboration will secure water security for all

Customized solutions are the key to water security.

Customized solutions are the key to water security. Image: Unsplash/Ahmed Rizkhaan

Roshni Nadar Malhotra
Chairperson, HCLTech
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Public-private partnerships have emerged as powerful instruments for sustainable solutions, offering a strategic bridge between public needs and private ingenuity.
  • Innovation and collaboration between the public and private sectors are all vital to creating sea change and moving towards a water-secure world.
  • The key is to give unprecedented attention to water risks and opportunities across sectors from agriculture to disaster prevention.

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) put water firmly on the agenda as security of this natural resource that covers around 71% of Earth’s surface will ensure nature, people, lives and livelihoods are at the heart of climate action. The summit’s strong focus on investment in innovation underpinned by financing mechanisms looked at solutions for freshwater restoration and conservation, infrastructure for urban water resilience and integrated governance and management of water-food systems. Such outcomes will be necessary for sustainable change to ensure water security for all.

However, the challenges and opportunities for water conservation are complex, as water conservation efforts are inherently local, with each region demanding customized solutions tailored to its unique geography, climate and socio-economic factors. For example, Rajasthan, situated on the arid Indian sub-continent, faces unique water conservation challenges distinct from other regions.

Providing access to potable water in rural households in India is crucial, given the considerable burden water collection places on rural women, particularly young girls – as of August 2023, drinking water was available to 65.5% of rural households in India, significantly contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 6.1, to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

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Public Private Partnerships will pave the way forward

Public-private partnerships have emerged as powerful instruments for sustainable solutions, offering a strategic bridge between public needs and private ingenuity. Governments can access financial support, cutting-edge technology, and inventive thinking for customized solutions by forging alliances with private entities.

According to the Asian Development Bank’s Strategy 2030, Asia and the Pacific require $53 billion per year in water investment through 2030. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the private sector will need to provide about one-third of this amount. Consequently, good water sector governance is essential to mobilize public and private finance. It emphasizes how public institutions must be able to prepare, monitor and oversee projects and ensure that transparent subsidies and effective fiscal management provide sustainable funding.

The Corporate Social Responsibility bill mandated by the Indian government requires companies to allocate 2% of their profits to support social causes, providing essential financial backing for water conservation initiatives. This commitment acts as a catalyst, enabling companies to invest in building water infrastructure, advocating water conservation practices and ensuring clean water access, especially for vulnerable communities.

Public-private partnerships backed by the bill’s mandate could emerge as a viable solution in water conservation. Beyond mere collaborations, they will weave together each sector’s strengths and pioneer replicable models for tackling other intricate, locally rooted challenges. That will help focus the discourse on water conservation, as part of sustainability and social welfare.

Innovations lead to water security

Innovative technologies are leading the charge to democratize access to safe water. Atmospheric water generators, for instance, are stepping in where traditional water sources fall short. These devices extract water from humid air, a game-changer in regions where obtaining clean water is challenging.

Start-ups like Majik Water in Kenya employ ground-breaking methods using condensation and solar thermal energy to generate clean, safe water directly from the air. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States have developed a portable desalination unit, no heavier than a suitcase, capable of generating drinking water by removing particles and salts. This device operates on minimal power, often less than a cell phone charger, making it efficient and portable.

Meanwhile, Oneka in Canada is harnessing the power of ocean waves to create sustainable desalination systems, providing water without electricity or greenhouse gas emissions.

Policies for a water-secure future

But more than just great partnerships and innovations instigate a sea change. Water-conscious policies are crucial – India’s National Water Policy 2020 is a case in point as it reshapes how water is used and charged for. As agriculture is the backbone of India’s economy, water policies wield immense influence, sculpting agricultural practices and the nation’s water security. Agriculture comprises approximately 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, with the rest allocated to industry and local municipalities.

Traditional preferences of farmers favouring water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane due to local agri-economics came at a cost: 80% of the country’s irrigation water covers only 40% of the farmed area. India’s National Water Policy 2020 introduced a pivotal change, recommending shifting the irrigation water fee structure from crop, acreage or season-based charges to a volumetric basis, intended to motivate farmers to adopt more water-efficient agricultural practices.

Solutions offered by companies like Kilimo are key to implementing this change. The digital irrigation platform optimizes water usage in agriculture using big data and machine learning to verify, improve and offset wastage through its unique remote technological tool that helps farmers reduce water usage by 30%. Optimizing irrigation helps farmers sell water offsets to companies that want to become water-neutral. This policy alteration under the national water policy is more than just a bureaucratic shift. It is a strategic move, aligning economic incentives with environmental responsibility.

Mitigating challenges across sectors

The need for innovative, collaborative solutions is evident as we stand at the precipice of unprecedented water challenges. Techniques such as water harvesting, desalination with renewable energy, water reuse and smart water management can potentially transform water management. Top priorities include conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems, enhancing urban water resilience and bolstering water-resilient food systems.

The intent is to give unprecedented attention to water risks and opportunities across the agenda, from agriculture to disaster prevention. Consequently, the localized nature of corporate social responsibility initiatives, although vital, must evolve to address these broader challenges.

The stakes are high, with projections indicating alarming exposure to water stress by 2050, leading to industrial interruptions, energy losses, agricultural challenges and potential downturns in gross domestic product. Amidst these daunting prospects, the power of collaborative efforts, innovative technologies and far-reaching policies shines brightly.

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