The last drop: Can smart tech save potable water?

Water is essential for all living creatures.

That makes the way we relate to water emotional, political, financial, and environmental all at once. Every human being on this planet believes his or her right to water is sacrosanct. We have even gone so far as to adopt resolutions about water rights within the United Nations.

Water is not a luxury item; it’s a genuine need

Yet, our understanding of this has not resulted in responsible water stewardship. For example, potable water’s importance and its relative scarcity (less than 2 percent of the water on Earth) should set water at a price that is well beyond what many could reasonably afford. None of us have ever paid the true cost of water. And the challenges are mounting; one-third of the world’s population experiences water scarcity at least one month per year. In the face of growing needs and increasingly variable supply, communities must turn to innovative solutions to ensure water security.

Drinkable water is scarce

If all the water on Earth could fit into a 5-liter bucket, less than one teaspoon would be accessible fresh water.

1.8 billion people could be living in absolute scarcity by 2025, while two-thirds of the world’s population could experience water stress.

Water demand is on the rise

The world’s population has tripled over the last century, while water use has multiplied by seven.

According to the U.N., the demand for fresh water is expected to surpass supply by 40% as soon as 2030.

The challenge is great, but so is the opportunity

Our water scarcity challenges are significant, but not insurmountable — if we take action. Innovations in big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) may be able to help us tackle water scarcity in a meaningful way. In fact, the companies in the Swell Clean Water portfolio are focused on developing advancements in water technologies, treatment, analysis, and conservation. I want to highlight two of these companies to give you a glimpse into how their water conservation and management initiatives are helping to protect this vital resource.


Making every drop count

First up, Itron. (ITN) Itron helps utilities make the very most of their water through increased efficiency and conservation.

Itron’s recent project with the city of North Miami solves two problems: Leaky pipes and customer service. Itron’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure solution marries leak detection technology with cloud-based analytics. So, instead of taking a year or more to identify leaks, the city gets real-time data and knows within three days. Since its installation in 2015, Itron’s automated system has already identified 23 leaks and repaired all of them, which has saved the city an estimated 27 million gallons a year. Utility costs have gone down, customers are happier, and best of all, a whole lot of precious water has been saved.

Doing more with less

Another company making waves in Swell’s Clean Water portfolio is Ecolab (ECL). Ecolab operates in the water, hygiene, and energy technologies and services space. Their Water Risk Monetizer is a financial modeling tool that helps businesses factor current and future water risks into decision-making. The tool was built on Microsoft’s cloud data system, Azure, with help from Trucost, a company that estimates the hidden costs of the use of natural resources. By using the cloud, IoT, and machine learning, they translate water scarcity risks into actionable insights.

During an interview with Environmental Leader, Microsoft senior director of environmental sustainability, Josh Henretig, highlighted an instance of the Water Risk Monetizer already making a difference. “Our San Antonio, Texas, data center sits in the Leon Creek Watershed. It’s a large data center that still relies on cooling towers, which largely depend on water. We discovered through the tool that the risk-adjusted price for water was eleven times more than the price we were paying the local San Antonio water utility. Eleven times.”

Operating in a water-stressed region means that you need to factor that when calculating risk. These numbers proved their case for a deeper investment in water saving tech. Since directly investing in the data center with water meters and other Ecolab tech, the center has seen a $140,000 per year savings and a 58-million-gallon avoidance of fresh water use.

Turning the tide towards real impact

Beyond advancements in big data and smart technology, lasting impact requires significant capital. A recent study found that in the U.S. alone, $1 trillion of investment is needed over the next 25 years just to meet demands in water infrastructure needs—but more significantly, this study found that a delay on action could double this amount. The good news: By investing in the water technologies that we rely on to provide us with safe, clean drinking water, we can also help improve human health globally while garnering a return - it’s purpose and profit in action!

Purpose meets profit

Universal access to safe water and sanitation would result in $32 billion in economic benefits each year from reductions in health care costs and increased productivity from reduced illness.

Global Access to safe water and adequate sanitation services has proven to be one of the most efficient ways of improving human health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), when considering the economic costs avoided, and the returns gained by various levels of investment in water supply improvements and sanitation, we could yield gains of $4 to $12 for every $1 invested, depending on the type of intervention.

These are just a few examples of game-changing companies addressing the water crisis; to see more, visit Swell’s Clean Water portfolio. 

Topics: Movers and Shakers, Clean water

Bryan Chiao

Bryan Chiao

Bryan’s work is driven by three beautiful words: Clarity, brevity, utility. He’s been bringing brands to life as a copywriter and art director for more than 15 years, working at cutting-edge agencies in New York and Singapore. While he thinks in words and pixels, Bryan is no stranger to finance: He had a hand in developing Citi’s first credit card that let consumers lower their APR and earn points for good financial habits.

2030 Water Resources Group.  “WATER: Oil Companies See Opportunity in Another Precious Commodity,” Greenwire, July 28, 2008  

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