Water Leaders Summit 2022 – Key Takeaways

By Dawn McGregor 24 May, 2022

From net zero water to sea level rise and floods to droughts, see what the world’s water experts had to say on tackling these challenges at the Water Leaders Summit 2022. Plus, see which global water megatrends made the updated list

Topics of four plenaries showed that climate change & its intersection with the water sector is a key focus; CWR sat on Plenary 4 discussing global water mega trends
It's clear that the water sector and utilities cannot ignore climate change; and actually, they have an important role in the climate transition with a net zero future
Missing trends from the mega trends list highlights issues of water no working more with other sectors; not just leaders that have a role in our climate future, we all do

The Water Leaders Summit (WLS) is a staple at Singapore International Water Week (SIWW). This year, the WLS was a full day with four plenaries that were filled with an array of global experts.

WLS covered various key & emerging water & climate topics

And as you can see from just the titles of the plenaries listed below, climate change and its intersection with the water sector was a key focus. This is encouraging to see given water is how we will feel most climate impacts. And the good news is that according to SIWW’s Ryan Yuen, climate change and emerging topics like coastal threats and adaptation finance are here to stay at SIWW, see more in our interview with him.

  • Plenary 1: Mitigating Climate Impacts: Transiting towards a Low-Carbon Sustainable Future
  • Plenary 2: Adapting to Climate Impacts: Building Resilience against Extreme Weather Events and Sea Level Rise
  • Plenary 3: Adapting to Climate Impacts: Strengthening Water Security against Dry Weather Events
  • Plenary 4: Global Water Megatrends: Preparing the Water Sector for 2030 and Beyond

CWR’s Debra Tan sat on the fourth plenary discussing mega trends along with global water guru Professor Asit Biswas, President of Urban Solutions at ST Engineering Chew Men Leong, Chief of Water Sector Group at the Asian Development Bank Neeta Pokhrel and Executive Vice President of Jacobs Patrick Hill.

See what trends were voted to the list and which the expert’s thought were missed in our key takeaways below. Plus, see what the water leaders had to say on tackling net zero water to sea level rise (SLR) and floods to droughts.

1. Water sector cannot ignore climate change

PUB (Singapore’s national water agency) is widely recognised as a leading water utility and its Chief Executive Peter Ng is a speaker who doesn’t mince his words and he said at the WLS, “…when the full impact of unmitigated climate change arrives on our shores, it will certainly devastate our water infrastructure, it will jeopardise our water supply and will imperil our water security… It was tough during the pandemic and we are not out if it yet… but you know the pandemic will go away but what is coming at us it is very different, climate change, and again I repeat my first point, this is real it will kill us.”

“…what is coming at us it is very different, climate change, and again I repeat my first point, this is real it will kill us.”

PUB Chief Executive,
Peter Ng

Other leaders also shared their concerns over climate change and the impacts they are already feeling. “We have too much water, in the wrong places at the wrong time and of the wrong quality”, said Mads Leth, CEO of VCS Denmark. Adding that in some places in Odense where VCS operates, groundwater is coming up into people’s basements, which is at times met with intense heavy rainfall. Meanwhile, Michael Carlin, Deputy GM of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission shared that wildfire due to high temperatures is a real concern for them and Maree Lang Managing Director of Greater Western Water in Melbourne spoke to the extreme floods and droughts they have to deal with and the strains that puts on operations.

The bad news is that it’s only going to get worse…

…water cycle is going to intensity…

…but flexible infrastructure can help

And the bad news is that it’s only going to get worse as Dr Debra Roberts, IPCC Co-Chair of Working Group II said, “We’re also expecting that those changes in extreme events across those ranges of precipitation, droughts, tropical cycles are going to get worse with every degree of global warming and that’s important for the water cycle. Working Group 1 is very clear that the water cycle is going to intensify, more droughts, more floods…”.

While conversation was plenty on the concerns and impacts of climate change, the leaders also spoke to solutions and what actions they are taking now. As water is a global issue but with very different local characteristics, solutions are not necessarily transferrable. However, one solution discussed that is easily transferrable is designing or retrofitting infrastructure to make it flexible. Flexible means it can adapt to a changing climate, to different needs at different times. Another point discussed is that new infrastructure should be planned with a changing climate and extreme weather in mind, e.g. consider sea level rise or inland flooding for any new builds.

2. Utilities have an important role in the climate transition – future is net zero

Discussion then moved on from the risks and impacts to the opportunities. Water and energy are often said to be two sides of the same coin or also referred to as the water-energy nexus. Simply put, you need water to produce energy and you need energy to clean, transport & heat water so, you can’t have one without the other. And what many don’t realise is that the water sector is a substantial energy user. According to the EPA, drinking water and wastewater systems account for ~2% energy use in the US, adding over 45 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. And so, as the world transitions to a low carbon economy, water utilities will have too as well, and this is where opportunities lie.

Water sector is a substantial energy user…

…opportunities can be found in going net zero…

…various utilities already announced targets

Indeed, Xylem published a report that shows that technologies exist today to reduce the carbon footprint of the entire wastewater section of water by 50% and 95% of that funding would occur at either neutral or negative cost because of the payback.

Various water utilities have set net zero targets. Greater Western Water has an ambitious net zero emission target by 2030. Singapore’s PUB aims to be carbon neutral by mid-century and will achieve this by following the 3Rs: Reduce, Replace and Remove carbon dioxide & equivalents.

While these targets are encouraging and net zero is the future of water utilities, there is still much that needs to be figured out. As PUB’s Peter Ng highlighted, it is inevitable that they will release some carbon, so they still need to figure out how to remove that from the atmosphere, to sequester it. Doing this will require new tech, new ways that we don’t have yet, but PUB is working on that with various partners. One such partner is UCLA and the project is looking at how to strip carbon from seawater before the water enters the desalination plant.

As we develop solutions, we should remember what Xylem President & CEO Patrick Decker said, “Innovation is the key. It’s not just technologies, its business models, its funding models.” We should also be cautious of intended consequences. A red flag was raised by the CEO of VCS Denmark who reminded the room of unintended consequences giving the example that as they were looking to cut carbon, out of the blue levels of Nitrogen Dioxide were detected and became something additional they had to deal with.

3. Missing trends from the mega trends list highlights issues of water not working more with other sectors

The list of global water mega trends that will shape the water industry for the next 10-15 years was first published three years ago and was updated for this SIWW by getting input from 100 global water leaders. The Top 6 mega trends in the updated list are:

  1. Climate change – adaptation & mitigation
  2. Resource circularity and circular economy
  3. Net zero & carbon neutrality
  4. Digitalisation
  5. Urbanisation
  6. Water reuse

While all valid and indeed key trends for the water sector there are some issues with the full list. Professor Asit Biswas, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Glasgow University (and sits on CWR’s advisory panel) said that the “grey wolves” were missing – grey wolves in the Chinese context are wolves that mix in with the surroundings and so are not visible.

Can’t overlook grey wolf trends like deteriorating water quality

These “grey wolf” trends missing included water quality deterioration coupled with no sign of improvement and poor water demand management. As a reason for missing these, Professor Asit Biswas said maybe people were thinking of the latest trends rather than also considering previous ones, something we can’t afford to do.

Another issue with the list was that it showed how the water sector largely operates in its own silo and is not invading other sectors enough. And actually, Chief of Water Sector Group at the Asian Development Bank Neeta Pokhrel said that water even has an issue of needing to un-silo more within it self, that rural and urban should be split. As for water needing to integrate more with other sectors professor Asit Biswas said, “There is a complete disconnect between the water profession and the climate profession. Look at COP 26. If you do a text analysis of COP 26 the word water does not appear… It’s not only COP 26, go back before it does not appear. So, in the water sector we say many things but our climate friends or our political friends don’t think much about it and that is a big problem.”.

Need water to invade other sectors…

“…for the water sector not just to consider itself as an island but the interconnectedness of the water sector with others…”

Patrick Hill, Executive VP at Jacobs added to this point saying, “The other theme that we are seeing right at the moment is for the water sector not just to consider itself as an island but the interconnectedness of the water sector with others, I’ll call it infrastructure markets whether its transportation, energy, buildings. More and more we are seeing the need to draw a different boundary around a problem than we ever did before.” He also shared about an exciting project for a Jacob’s client, a major clothing brand & manufacturer that are looking to be water neutral. This highlights how water is not just integrated into all sectors but is being innovated in different ways and the water sector should be involved in these.

CWR’s Debra Tan further advanced this need for a cross-sector approach by discussing how given the financial implications at all levels even sovereign ratings from water risks, the finance industry is going to be invading the water industry. And that the finance industry is going to be setting the standards with or without the water sector.

While WLS pushed conversations on the future of water, we all have a role in our climate future, not just leaders

The WLS pushed conversations on the future of water but to wrap, we want to refer to PUB’s Peter Ng’s words to remind us all that it’s not just the leaders, we all play a role in our future waterscape, our future climate – “I want to finish off by brining attention back to the individual. Please don’t go away thinking that climate mitigation is just about intergovernmental agreements, targets, carbon tax, no. Ultimately, it must be about the individual and how the individual behaves. And to the individual, we ask that he/she/it use water in the most efficient and productive fashion. Because in Singapore we believe that everybody can be taught from infancy, from a very young age that water is precious and must be treasured. And this is also why water conservation has also been in the curriculum of Singapore schools for decades and we continue to teach our grade schoolers about water conservation…”

Further Reading

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Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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