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  • Writer's pictureWill Sarni

Harnessing the Power of the Crowd – Who Reinvents the Water Sector?

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 21st Century solutions to 21st Century 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.

    • At a US Conference of Mayors in 2010, local leaders stated that their communities can not keep up financially with the unfunded federal and state mandates.

  • 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.


  • Poor people in the developing world pay on average 12 times more per liter of water bought than fellow citizens connected to municipal systems

    • In some cities, the poor pay significant premiums for water to vendors over the standard water price of those hooked up to municipal systems: 60 times more in Jakarta, Indonesia; 83 times more in Karachi, Pakistan; and 100 times more in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

    • In developed countries, the standard water bill is as low as 0.1 percent of the income of a minimum-wage earner, according to the report. On the other hand, a person living in poverty in Madagascar can spend up to 45 percent of their daily income on water, just to get the minimum recommended amount to meet their needs.

  • Lack of access to safe drinking water disproportionately impacts women who spend their days gathering fetching water.

    • Women and girls often spend up to 6 hours each day collecting water

    • Research in sub-Saharan Africa suggests that women and girls in low-income countries spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water—the equivalent of a year’s worth of labor by the entire work force in France.


  • 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 limitations 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, 101010 and the XPRIZE. 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 ( and

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 benefit 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.


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