SIWW 2014: Water Leaders Identify Sector’s Biggest Challenges

4 Jun 2014 by OOSKAnews Correspondent

Participants in the Water Leaders Roundtable, held on June 3 as part of Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), identified what they saw as the two biggest challenges in water management in 2030 and beyond.

Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) Chairman Tan Gee Paw said the key issues are climate change and the need for greater responsiveness from water users. Climate change means that there will be extremes of dry periods and more intense rainfall, “the worst news you can hear,” he said.

He also wanted consumers to respond to droughts by cutting back, without the need for imposing water rationing, and for industries to increase water efficiency, because cheap water means there is tremendous wastage.

World Water Council President (WWC) Benedito Braga had a slightly different view, saying the two biggest challenges for the water industry are efficient water usage and reducing waste.

Along with using industry solutions, he said, “we need to explore outside the water industry” by looking for solutions such as biotechnology, new financing alternatives and managing trans-boundary water basins. In addition, “we have to look at water, energy and food, [and] make sure governments cannot discuss food security without considering water and also energy problems.”

For his part, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Secretary General Jose Angel Gurria said fighting complacency is needed to make developed countries realize they have serious water problems. One focus for countries seeking to solve water challenges needs to be sustainable financing, he said, and this will require at least one of the “3 Ts” -- tariffs, taxes or transfers.

Additionally, “innovation needs to be in our minds permanently,” and proper governance, pricing, decision-making and consensus-building are essential. 

Presenting an industry viewpoint, Nestle Vice President Herbert Oberhaensli said his company has worked to improve efficiency and reduce wastewater discharges by improving operations and reducing waste in the food chain, with solutions such as programs for better collection of milk. While there is a lot companies can do, he said, it is also essential for local governments to set the right framework and develop a strategy to overcome excessive water use.

When asked to name the two most important technological breakthroughs that are likely to emerge in the next 20 years, Xylem CEO Patrick Decker said the technologies actually exist today. Technology already exists, for example, to use the water that we flush down the toilet, install pumping stations that reduce energy usage by 50 percent and extract energy from sludge rather than treating it as waste. The challenge, he said, is pulling solutions together and adopting them in a consistent way.

A number of the panelists returned to focus on technology.

“Don’t wait for innovations when you haven’t implemented existing technology,” Oberhaensli advised. Gurria added: “We should not wait for the perfect technology. Water is local. You don’t have to get to the moon.”

What’s most important, the panelists agreed, is taking action sooner rather than later to solve the vital challenges around water.

During the Water Leaders Breakfast, held the same day, water utility leaders from Africa, Australia, Europe and North America as well as an academic and a corporate executive discussed how they find innovative solutions and what they see as some of the leading ideas in the water industry.

One participant noted that one of the best places to find innovations for the water sector is in adjacent sectors such as defense.

There was concurrence that communicating plans clearly and gaining support from the community is increasingly important. Customers can also become part of the solution for reducing water use, and participants shared a variety of ideas to engage them.

While pricing for water is relatively inelastic, one participant said that changing billing frequency to increase knowledge and change behavior can have a big impact. Sending a bill monthly or every other month has more of an effect on reducing water usage than a quarterly billing statement, for example.

SIWW is part of tripartite conference week that also includes the World Cities Summit (WCS) and the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore (CESS). It runs from June 1-5.