“We are planning for water for a century to come," the San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page wrote in 1913 of the decision to build the O'Shaughnessy Dam and flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Almost a century later, snowpack supplying the Bay Area with water is at a record low, the Delta’s ecosystem is in flux, and demand for water continues to rise from agriculture, industry and homeowners.
Worldwide, the story is starker; water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the people on our planet, more people have cell phones than toilets, and in the U.S., you’re more likely to find a stranger on the street who can tell you about the new iPad than articulate the threats to clean water and sanitation.
Thursday, March 22nd, is World Water Day, one day out of the year when we’re exposed to heart-tugging images of villagers carrying buckets from wells, of children drinking from torpid puddles, and others that compel us to care. But this day should be about more than merely recognizing the problem, and instead focus on laying the groundwork for paths forward.
No longer can we solely rely on damming rivers and flooding valleys to solve our water problems. We can, however, leverage a resource we didn’t have a century ago: a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship around technology – a resource found in abundance in the Bay Area.
As we plan for water for centuries to come, we must approach this seemingly intractable problem from a similar mindset that created Google, Twitter, Facebook and other companies that are changing the way we live. In order to do this, we must begin to position the water crisis as an opportunity for those up to the challenge, and inspire a new wave of entrepreneurs who recognize that water (not plastics) is the one word they should know – there’s a great future in water.
Already, the Bay Area is home to a number of innovative water startups taking advantage of this opportunity. Companies like Driptech and NextDrop help people in underdeveloped regions through advanced irrigation techniques, and others like Fruition Sciences and WaterSmart take a highly scientific approach to water conservation. Innovation at the corporate level is also taking shape as companies like Intel, Levis, Gap, Del Monte, Oracle and more look to manage water resources. As the business case for water evolves, this innovation landscape could eventually become a major sector for our local economy.
Yet, investments in the region’s emerging water startups and investments by larger corporations do not begin to reflect the magnitude of the challenge, or of the opportunity, estimated at $500 billion and growing. One has to wonder what the water crisis would look like if it received the same level of investment received by the web 2.0 economy.
Entrepreneurs who understand the power of markets and can develop disruptive business models have a bright future – a future that all people will profit from through access to clean water and sanitation. Tackling the water crisis requires us to think beyond the current approach. While entrepreneurship can’t solve the issue alone, it’s a potent resource we have yet to fully tap, but must.
Scott Bryan is Chief Operating Officer at Imagine H2O, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that inspires and empowers people around the world to turn water challenges into opportunities. Imagine H2O offers annual prize competitions for water innovation that focus on specific challenges such as water efficiency, the water-energy nexus and wastewater. In addition to cash prizes for the best ideas, Imagine H2O’s accelerator program helps competing entrepreneurs turn their plans into game-changing, real-world solutions.