Biz leaders and scientists brainstorm solutions to the freshwater crisis
Mary Pearl is the president of Wildlife Trust, cofounder of its Consortium for Conservation Medicine, and an adjunct research scientist at Columbia University. She recently returned from a boat trip through the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador with scientists, conservationists, and business leaders, intended to forge partnerships and develop solutions to the global freshwater crisis. This is the third and final dispatch from her journey. See also her first and second dispatches.
My best intentions were to have a daily dispatch to Gristmill from our weeklong floating seminar on the future of fresh water, but satellite communication from the boat proved iffy as we moved among some of the outer islands. Then, once back in New York, a million postponed obligations got in the way. However, we did have some great conversations on board, which have led to some exciting plans. So rather than the final three dispatches, I offer this wrap-up:
Entrepreneurs like nothing so much as fashioning market-based solutions to environmental problems. While it is easy to see how there is money to be made in cleaning water or providing it to underserved communities, the problem of water scarcity is less easily handled by the marketplace. So we started out by discussing supply and demand. Some 70 percent of water use is for agriculture, and in arid regions the amount exceeds 90 percent. We discuss the supply curve first: how much water of a specific quality can be supplied with a specified reliability in various parts of the world where it is needed. There are severe distortions in water distribution because of many different kinds of subsidies and legal arrangements related to prior rights to water for specific uses. What should scarce water be used for, and what are people willing to pay for a certain amount of water of a certain quality and reliability? How can we provide estimates locally, regionally, and globally, if estimates of global groundwater range from 7 million cubic kilometers to 330 million cubic kilometers? Is water always a human right, or might there be room for some markets in water?
Someone brings up an interesting example of competing needs for water on Taiwan. Lots of distilled water is needed to wash microchips, and given that this is a lucrative industry, owners are willing to pay dearly for clean water. So the farmers, who before used 90 percent of available freshwater, were simply bought out by the Taiwan-based chip makers and stopped growing crops. This certainly solved the pre-existing problem of agricultural wasteful misuse.
We then turned to business opportunities afforded by water misallocation and misuse. I was stunned to learn that the U.S. ranks last of 147 countries in irrigation efficiency, according to a USDA water research program study. Only 15 percent of water applied is actually used by crops in our country, and the rest evaporates. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, by the way.
We concluded that technologies to improve the efficiency of irrigation are not developed simply because food prices are usually artificially controlled. Countries tolerate huge swings in GDP related to water availability in drought and non-drought years.
We discussed a variety of potential solutions. We can work to encourage changes in diet preferences, or plant genetically modified crops that use less water or tolerate brackish water, or shift from high water-use plants like rice to millet, or reduce meat consumption, which is a higher drain on water than plant foods.
Another solution would be to increase water use and reuse efficiency, using new, more efficient technologies for water recycling. Major companies — such as GE, represented in our discussions by a senior executive in their health division, Peter Solmssen — are already investing in the areas of filtration, ultrafiltration, and desalination. Better management regimes are also in order, and we discussed how international arrangements might be designed to reserve a core amount of water for critical human and ecological use (the freshwater we deem a human and natural “right”) and then allow for market pricing for the rest of water. A less radical approach would be at least to reduce subsidies and provide conservation incentives.
Looked at from the perspective of health, water should be a right. Fully 21 percent of deaths of children under five years of age in developing countries can be attributed to diarrheal diseases, which in turn can be directly linked to water. Rotavirus in drinking water is a major cause of virally caused diarrhea. The lack of clean washing water leads directly to a bacterium responsible for diarrhea: shigella. Adults as well as children are at risk from major parasitic diseases that depend on freshwater to attack us. Malaria and filariasis are carried by mosquitoes, which breed in water. The guinea worm and blood flukes enter our bodies from dirty water. To confront these water-borne health threats, we must see diseases in their environmental context, and recognize that treatment must include environmental amelioration.
We all agreed that because some of the creators of the water crisis, such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, are simply pointing to a need for more investment in irrigation modernization, it behooves us to bring our perspectives on water needs, markets, and solutions-oriented approaches to wider audiences. We decided to bring more people from science and business into the discussion. Manu Lall, the hydrologist, described an imaginative multi-story greenhouse/hydroponics farm/desalination structure that could become the agricultural norm in the future. Marty Kaplan, a partner at a major law firm, suggested that we contact those who several years ago created a consortium to frame the issues of energy and clean technology, in order to move quickly to bring all those with an interest in the future of freshwater into a framework that has produced results in a related arena.
The lively and sincere engagement of so many self-identified “capitalists” in our group aroused the curiosity of the scientists, so we asked the two Brazilian CEOs to talk about how they came to place environmental sustainability at the center of their business practices. Guilherme Leal of Natura, Brazil’s largest cosmetics company, and Juscelino Martins of Martins Ltd. and Tribanco spoke to us about the importance of sustainability from a business standpoint, but they made it clear that what came first was ethics and a love of nature, which compelled them to bring environmental health to the forefront of their planning. In other words, the motivation for their work is the same as that of the scientists on board. Hans Kann Rasmussen from Denmark responded to the openness of the Brazilians by thanking them and sharing a similar sentiment. Everyone was touched by the fact that we somehow arrived at a deeply felt meeting of hearts and minds. The shared hikes and snorkel swims and natural problem-solving orientation of businesspeople and scientists have all worked their magic, and we ended our trip in quest of a common goal.
After arriving back in our respective countries, we have kept conversations going. Manu Lall, Marty Kaplan, and I met with Hank Habicht of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, who is also on the National Commission on Energy Policy and served as a co-organizer of the Energy Future Coalition. We began talks toward convening a larger group of institutions, like the ones organized for energy, to focus on freshwater scarcity, with some specific outcomes identified. Our goal will emphatically not be to host yet another large conference where the title is global but everyone talks local. Instead, we hope to set targets for acquiring global and local knowledge of scarcity and abundance, modeling the effects of changes of abundance on ecosystem function, and effecting market mechanisms to create efficient water use and re-use, most particularly in agriculture. Marty and Hank will talk to Hans in Denmark next week, and Manu and I are continuing the planning here in New York. I’ll head to Brazil at the end of the month and will meet with Claudio and Juscelino and Don. In a year’s time, I hope that the Water Future Coalition will be a reality.