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Water Wars!

Water is running out! So warned United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos where he told delegates that actions to prevent discord over water shortages would need to be at the very top of the global agenda this year. This is a prescient warning to humankind.

Water covers approximately 70 percent of the planet’s surface. Our rich diversity of life forms depend on abundant supplies of water. All life on Earth is thought to have originated in the ocean and today water makes up 60 to 70 percent of all living matter. About two-thirds of the human body is composed of water. Humans can live no more than a week without drinking water. Water is vital to our survival.

In spite of this, potable water has become one of our scarcest resources. For decades, futurists have been predicting wars will be fought over water rather than oil. Well, the future has arrived. The conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan was sparked by drought. Water shortages contribute to poverty and social hardship in Somalia, Chad, Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Columbia and Kazakhstan – all parts of the world where water is desperately needed but where guns our found instead.

Population growth is making this situation far worse. So too is climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. It is probable that many more conflicts lie just beyond the horizon. At least 112 countries with a combined population of 3.9 billion people are in areas where climate change and water-related crises are creating a high risk of violence and conflict.

Over the past few years the world community has realized the seriousness of climate change although global warming is potentially far more catastrophic than anyone had previously imagined. Even the most pessimistic of scientists have been caught napping by actual events and measurements. Worst-case scenarios are being updated on an almost daily basis.

Associated problems, such as the loss of biodiversity, pollution, industrial waste, smog, acid rain, extreme weather and looming difficulties in the cost and supply of food and water have together created an agenda we can no longer ignore. A systemic solution to this dire global problem is needed and it is needed now. We cannot wait.

I hope the citizens of Australia are listening. This is a critically important topic for people living on Earth’s driest continent. As we adapt to a new global reality we must focus on keeping water clean, using it more wisely, and sharing it more fairly. These three factors will be pivotal in ensuring that there is enough water for everyone.

Part of the solution (in terms of keeping water clean at least) lies in the innovation of new technologies. But breakthroughs are also urgently needed in the business models we use to apply these technologies as well as in the delivery systems used to get clean water to people. These two factors defy traditional thinking and panaceas.

On 22nd April this year I will be in Melbourne’s Town Hall moderating a forum convened by Innovation Exchange Australia. The Water Technologies Breakthrough Forum is the first event in a series intended to articulate the issues and promote new opportunities concerning the diffusion and application of water technologies in helping to secure Australia’s water needs into the future.

I urge anyone who has a technical or business interest in securing Australia’s water future to participate. We will be examining issues such as: What technologies are available for all stages of the water life cycle? What are the barriers to diffusion of technologies locally? How should we support further innovation? And how can we capitalize on our own expertise?

The results of the forum will be communicated to all stakeholders. Key ideas will be further explored through a series of leadership dinners and consultations with leading executives from industry, government and research entities. The outcomes of these sessions will be reported to the Water Solutions Summit scheduled for September.

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