By Alan Shapiro, Director of Foresight Canada’s waterNEXT network and Bo Simango, CEO and Co-Founder of Aquafort
It’s been said that if climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth. From flooding and drought to ocean acidification and coastal erosion, we are already seeing these impacts unfold across Canada and around the world. Inevitably, impacts are never isolated to a single Earth system. The complex web of relationships that defines our water, energy, and food systems–known as the water-energy-food nexus–means that the security of one cannot be achieved without also investing in the other two. The collective health of these systems provides a necessary foundation for community well-being, economic prosperity, and reconciliation.
What does a net-zero 2050 mean for water in Canada? In its simplest form, the future we envision for water is sustainable, secure, and equitable. In a world where Canada has achieved its 2050 goals, that future should include:
- Ensuring every water system across Canada, in particular rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, provides safe, clean drinking water.
- Strong data and research around the water issues we face, both in 2050 and beyond.
- A commitment to necessary funding, developing strong regulations, and enacting proactive measures to address these issues in real-time.
- Support for technological and social innovation ecosystems that cultivate climate solutions.
- A global leadership role in water technology, innovation, and conservation, with recognition of Canada’s privileged position as a developed economy.
- Viewing all water-related policy, investment, and action through the lens of sustainability, equity, and reconciliation.
We are not alone in imagining this future. Our Living Waters, a national network of freshwater organizations, has set the ambitious goal of seeing all waters in Canada in good health by 2030. This means that water in Canada is safe for swimming and drinking and contaminant-free; fish are flourishing and are healthy to eat; the flow of water in rivers and lakes supports life, recreation, and a healthy environment; and aquatic bugs that form the base of the food chain are thriving in all of the waterways in Canada.
However, as a recent article from MakeWay makes abundantly clear, we’ve got a lot of work to do:
“There are more than 200 federal departments and agencies in Canada, with more than 20 of these departments having freshwater responsibilities and over 75 interacting with water in one way or another. Canada has specific agencies for fish, agriculture, and natural resources – all of which impact and rely upon water – yet we do not yet have one for our most abundant resource.”
Two new high-profile federal initiatives–the Canada Water Agency and Blue Economy Strategy–offer opportunities to advance national conversations around the future of Canada’s freshwater and ocean resources. Likewise, multiple funding announcements over the past year, including for land and water conservation, Indigenous protected areas, and First Nations drinking water bring much needed resources to water systems that have historically been under-funded and under-supported. These commitments are steps in the right direction, but more action is needed to draw on the full range of economic and policy tools at our disposal in Canada.
In addition to stewarding and restoring the health of our waters, Canada also has an important opportunity to play a global leadership role in water technology and innovation. These tools are only one part of the solution to the complex challenges presented by climate change, but they can serve to advance our central values of sustainability, security, and equity.
Water innovation can offer a range of environmental benefits, and the connection between water technologies and net-zero should not be overlooked. Freshwater and oceans represent a significant and largely untapped opportunity for energy savings, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and renewable energy generation.
The technologies of tomorrow are already in development and aquaculture offers just one example. As the fastest-growing food sector in the world and burgeoning industry in Canada, aquaculture has seen significant technological advancements from Canadian companies that support environmentally conscious fish production. Aquaculture is a resource-intensive industry, and these innovative technologies can be the difference between the expansion of ocean-based fish farming that can be harmful to aquatic environments and the transition to sustainable, land-based fish farming. Canadian start-ups such as Aquafort AI are meeting challenges in acute production through a combination of artificial intelligence, sensor data integration, and predictive analytics to help land-based farmers maintain fish and ecosystem health.
As we head into a federal election where climate is taking center stage for the first time, we have an opportunity to chart the course for a net-zero future by 2050, and beyond.
Alan Shapiro is the director of Foresight Canada’s waterNEXT network and principal at water and sustainability consultancy Shapiro & Company. You can find him on Twitter @watercomm.
Bo Simango is the CEO and Co-Founder of Aquafort, a technology startup serving the aquaculture industry and board member with Sierra Club Canada Foundation. You can find him on Twitter @BoSimango.
Cloud computing. Augmented intelligence. Blockchain. The business landscape is changing rapidly, observes Rebekah Eggers, IBM’s Global Water Lead. She also believes that new tools open up endless possibilities in the water industry
What are the current threats and opportunities for the water industry?
Our clients include major utilities and cities, and they are really focused on securing a safe water future. To us, that means working to establish the ecosystem necessary to plan, design, and develop adaptive and resilient measures into solutions that will ensure sufficient clean water for all in perpetuity, based on sustainable management and use of water resources and water infrastructure. These cities and companies are inherently very risk-averse, but they’re facing a water landscape that is undergoing massive change. Technology is evolving, stakeholders are expecting more, and water infrastructure is aging—along with the people in the industry that oversee it. Our clients are having to reinvent how they do business. They’re regularly making extraordinary things happen, against all odds. I get to work with some incredibly visionary leaders.
We hear a lot about the challenges cities face with aging infrastructure. How can better data help rusting water pipes?
Utilities, cities, and regional governments don’t always have the funds to replace infrastructure outright; they often need to use their existing infrastructure more strategically. Our Intelligent Water software helps them manage pressure, detect leaks, reduce consumption, mitigate sewer overflow, and better manage infrastructure, assets, and operations. It adds a layer of “digital intelligence” to water infrastructure, bringing together data that is often otherwise stuck in silos, and puts it to work. Our clients use it to optimize their resources; it gives them finer control over assets and maintenance, and helps them with asset investment planning. By harnessing data, they’re able to prioritize and also maximize the capacity of existing infrastructure. We identify which pipes are most likely to break next year; and we helped one agency save over $100 million in capex by showing them how they could better configure their existing CSO system rather than building a new one. Other clients have reduced capex needs by 10% or more.
The theme for GLOBE Forum 2018 is ‘disrupting business as usual.’ What technologies are doing that in your world?
Three groups of technologies come to mind: Cloud computing, cognitive computing, and the blockchain. With cloud computing, processing can and does happen anywhere. Already, we have smart water systems where sensors are monitoring water quality at fixed intervals. If the system detects an anomaly—something that isn’t supposed to be there—it can automatically increase sampling rates.
Cognitive technology is allowing us to ask more questions. We don’t call AI “artificial intelligence,” we prefer to say “augmented intelligence.” Our position is that AI is more of a symbiotic relationship—it’s not “man against machine in the battle for our jobs.” The magic is in the people who are training the machines to learn.
Finally, blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, allows people to interact instantly based on mutual trust, and without any central monitoring body. In the context of the water industry, you can imagine what opportunities this technology could enable when it comes to shared processes such as water trading or managing home water purification in the distant future.
Can you give us a hint?
If home or decentralized water treatment takes off as we are starting to see in places like Australia, blockchain could potentially be used in validating when someone contributes purified water back to the system, or validating that waste water has or has not been treated. A new business model could emerge here. But it has a more immediate role with things like water wheeling and water trading—automatically validating that water was or was not supplied as contracted and that payment was made accordingly.
In some industries, we’re seeing not just the power of the cloud, but the power of the crowd. Is that happening in the water industry?
I think it will be inevitable. In 2015, when IBM acquired the Weather Company—the company behind the fourth most popular app in United States—we also ‘adopted’ the Weather Underground, a community of more than 300,000 amateur meteorologists. They feed data from their own home weather stations into the company’s forecasting engine, which now runs on IBM’s powerful cognitive and analytics platform. The system processes 26 billion inquiries through its cloud-based services each day. Now imagine if we had a similar approach to measuring water quality in our homes. Many people have water treatment units in their home. What if all of them were connected, and able to share data? Residents and businesses could consume water with confidence and providers would be aware of issues in near real time, enabling more timely issue resolution. I believe that we can make a huge difference if we empower people with information.
You’re based in Los Angeles. Other than sampling our incredible tap water, what are you hoping to accomplish when you join us in Vancouver?
GLOBE Forum 2018 is an incredibly important opportunity for the industry to come together and share expertise. When projects, departments, agencies collaborate and share information, when vendors like IBM come together with competitors and others, in a business ecosystem to solve a problem, we get closer to that vision of a bright future. That happens when we put all our power, and all our effort into the same challenge, and that’s what GLOBE Forum is all about. We’ve only just begun to uncover what is possible. Let’s work together to drive real progress in our world!
This article is part of our new six-part content series, “Echoes of the Forum”, which provides exclusive videos, interviews, and key takeaways and actions from our world-leading sustainable business event – GLOBE Forum.
Our third chapter focuses on the role that materials and resources play in the transition to a circular economy.