Glass Half Empty: The risks and opportunities of water scarcity


Brittany Harris
By Brittany Harris

You’ve had an unlimited amount of water at your disposal for your entire life. Water was used to make that delicious, cheesy pizza that you waited until cheat day to eat and it will be used to get that inevitable red stain out of your brand-new white shirt. It is used to nourish the ficus you have sitting on your office desk because you read that article about plants increasing productivity in the workplace and you really needed to find a way to stop procrastinating. And water is used to buy your roommate time before they have to wash their mountain of dishes because they need to “soak” first and it will be used when you eventually give in and wash them yourself.

But try to imagine a world where water is scarce. In this world, you don’t have pizza, or office plants, or clean dishes – you don’t even have a safe place to go to the bathroom. Now imagine that this unrecognizable world is one that millions of people actually live in and one that you (or your children) might eventually be a part of.

Water may be abundant, but it is unequally distributed, frequently wasted, increasingly contaminated, and finite.  

“By 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions where water becomes an impediment to health, peace, and socio-economic development,” says the U.S Department of State website.  

Developed countries, such as America (one of the world’s largest consumers of water), are not exempt from this burgeoning issue. In fact, “many states – 40 out of 50 – have at least one region that’s expected to face some kind of water shortage in the next 10 years,” reported Business Insider. The severity of these shortages are demonstrated by the intense drought the State of California has been facing for the last four years, which, in 2015 alone, resulted in mandatory water restrictions across the state, reduced employment for around 21,000 people, and cost about $2.7B.

But maybe you will be lucky and you won’t be personally affected by these impending water shortages and quality issues. So why should you care? Well, it turns out water is used for pretty much everything, it is cited as the number one global risk by the World Economic Forum, and it will, without a doubt, impact your career.

“Water is going to matter to you and your career and it is up to you to decide to pay attention to this trend or not, but you’re not going to get away from it,” says Earl Jones (see insert).

I’m going to assume that you, someone who fought their way into Harvard’s Business School and pays a whopping $100,000 to be here, cares at least a little bit about your future livelihood. So you might want to ask yourself, “How will water impact my career?”

On World Water Day (March 22), the Student Sustainability Associates (SSAs) held a panel composed of water experts to discuss this very question.

“Our goal is to get HBS students to see the challenges related to water and deal with them proactively rather than be blindsided when it is too late,” says Benjamin Rizzo, one of the panel organizers.

image (1)“While some people see risk, I see opportunity. And there is ample opportunity to rethink how we think,” says Jones. “These opportunities don’t solely lie in technology either, there are legal opportunities, policy opportunities, the list goes on.”

Which of these opportunities should you pursue?

All three panelists adamantly believe that reduction and reuse provides the biggest opportunity for businesses and for water scarcity solutions.

“Drinking water is the smallest area of water use, so treating waste water and reusing this for non-drinking needs provides the world’s biggest opportunity,” says Cincotta.

There are many existing companies and technologies that focus on reuse and many more are being developed and improved upon every day. “Purple pipes, which are pipelines that carry reusable waste water for non-potable application, are a very exciting development,” says Jones. “A purple pipeline I worked on saved Kuwait $13B.”

image (1)In addition to these newer developments, there are many older technologies that are being revitalized, such as desalination, which continues to grow despite criticisms of its expense (costing about twice as much as the treatment of rainwater or waste water). “Desalination is not new, but it is becoming much more efficient,” says Tisdale.

Or, if focusing on reuse isn’t your dream, you could simply follow in these expert’s footsteps. You could start an NGO that helps a region gain access to clean water like Cincotta, you could work in Big Data and create strategies for other companies to improve their water efficiency like Tisdale, or you could invest in other people’s water saving ideas like Jones.

Who should you work for?

There are a multitude of companies working on various water solutions. Some of these companies include:

Cambrian Innovation, which has developed a treatment system that leverages electrically active microbes to extract resources like clean water and clean energy from wastewater.

FloDesign Sonics, which has created an efficient separation technology that can help clean the water that surfaces when gas and oil is extracted. FloDesign’s technology uses acoustic waves to capture and separate substances from water or other liquids without using filters or chemicals.

Desalitech Reflex, which has created a more efficient reverse osmosis system that maximizes energy savings during desalination.

And others such as: Oasys, Gradiant, Fathom, Pentair, Danaher, GE Water, Honeywell, and many more.

Not looking to work directly with water?

You’ll still be affected by water challenges even if opportunities in these companies don’t interest you. There will always be vital decisions related to water use in your future company.

“HBS’s greatest impact on water challenges will be through the decision making power of its graduates. One aspect of those decisions will be in making and leading behavioral culture,” says Rizzo. “HBS can set a strong example of a sustainable culture by implementing water reduction technologies and practices like low flow faucets and water recycling, such that HBS students get used to using the technology here. This would result in lower use on campus and wider adoption long term as students graduate and advocate for implementation of the technologies and practices they became familiar with at HBS.”

Final words of advice:

There is no way that water will not impact your career, so the important question is, “what are you going to do about it?”


Brittany Harris is a Master’s Candidate, studying Environmental Applied Science. She has a background in journalism and is passionate about improving communication between environmental scientists, the media, and the public.


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