OOSKAnews Voices: Harnessing the Power of the Crowd -- Who Reinvents the Water Sector?

12 Aug 2016 by OOSKAnews Correspondent
DENVER, CO, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

Will Sarni, Director and Practice Leader Water Strategy at Deloitte Consulting LLP, calls for 21st Centry Solutions to water challenges.

Sarni is the Deloitte technical lead for the CEO Water Mandate “Water Action Hub” project and was the Deloitte Project Lead for the CDP Water Program from 2011 through 2013. He is a Board Member of the Rainforest Alliance; on the Water Leadership Working Group for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD); on the Water Working Group for the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) to the OECD; on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week; and an adviser to the University of Cambridge Natural Capital Leaders Platform “The right value for externalities” collaboration. He is a technical adviser to the “America’s Water Initiative” at the Columbia Water Center-The Earth Institute at Columbia University and is a member of the Climate Bonds Standard Water Investments Technical Committee.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author.

We need a different approach to developing solutions to 21st Century water challenges. To quote a colleague in the water sector, (in the US) “we have 19th Century Water Policy, 20th Century Water Infrastructure and 21st Century Challenges.”

Therefore, we need 21stCentury solutions to 21stCentury challenges and these solutions will not only come from the “usual suspects.” Business as usual (BAU) has left the world with market failures and challenges in water governance, equity, infrastructure investment and technology innovation. A few statistics to illustrate the point:


  • Current price doesn’t promote technology innovation and investment in infrastructure.
  • Funds allocated to develop water infrastructure projects in developing economies don’t always translate to capital and operating benefits for those in need.
    • From a UN and WHO study, urban areas receive over two times more aid funding for sanitation and water than rural areas despite the fact that the majority of populations with unmet water and sanitation needs reside in rural areas.



  • Water infrastructure is many parts of the world dates back to the 19th century. Centralized water infrastructure was, and continues to be, essential in delivering drinking water to population centers. However, this infrastructure can have has llimitations in both developed and developing economies.
    • In 2013, the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated that it could take between $2.8 and $4.8 trillion to maintain, operate, replace, and upgrade the nation’s water infrastructure.
    • As infrastructure continues to age, there is high volumes of “non-revenue water” or leaks in both developed and developing countries. Researchers estimate that in the US alone, 2.1 trillion gallons of clean drinking water are lost from leaky pipes and asset failure each year. 

I suggest a I recommend we rethink as to how we develop solutions to these environmental and social water challenges. 

Let’s activate the crowd through prize competitions and engage with the entrepreneurial community outside of our sector to craft innovative technologies and businesses. My suggestion recommendation is based upon formed through my experience with organizations such as ImagineH2O (www.imagineh2o.org), 101010 (www.101010.net) and the XPRIZE (www.xprize.org). ImagineH2O has a long and successful standing track record in prize competitions to develop innovative solutions to water challenges. 101010 has built a process to bring 10 entrepreneurs together for 10 days to tackle 10 “wicked problems” such as healthcare and is considering other challenges such as water. This year XPRIZE has a team competing to be an XPRIZE for Water (http://www.xprize.org/visioneers and http://www.xprize.org/visioneers/teams/safe-drinking-water). 

There is a recent example of how prize competitions can drive water technology innovation. A Johannesburg schoolgirl, Kiara Nirghin, won the Google Science Fair's Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa with her submission "No More Thirsty Crops." The innovation was in using orange peel and avocado skins to create an absorbent polymer which stores water and, in turn, which allows farmers to maintain their crops at a minimal cost. The polymer has the additional added bbenefit of using recycled and biodegradable waste products. According to Andrea Cohan, program leader of the Google Science Fair, "Kiara found an ideal material that won't hurt the budget in simple orange peel, and through her research, she created a way to turn it into soil-ready water storage with help from the avocado.” 

It remains to be seen where this technology innovation goes and how it scales. However, the key point is that Kiara is someone outside the water industry “anwho  outsider” and took a fresh look at a water challenge and developed an innovative solution. 

I encourage water practitioners to encourage non-practitioners to help drive innovative thinking and bring new ideas, technologies and business models to solve 21st Century water challenges.