We need to build a weather service for water. Yet, until we collectively demand accountability, the incentives to fund it will not exist.
The first time I spoke at a conference was here at TED, eight years ago. Fresh out of grad school, little did I know that in those few minutes onstage, I was framing the questions I was going to be asked for the next decade. And, like too many 20-somethings, I expected to solve the world's problems — more specifically, the world's water problems — with my technology. I had a lot to learn.
It was seductive, believing that our biggest water quality problems persist because they're so hard to identify. And I presumed that we just needed simpler, faster and more affordable sensors. I was wrong. While it's true that managing tomorrow's water risk is going to require better data and more technology, today we're barely using the little water data that we have. Our biggest water problems persist because of what we don't do and the problems we fail to acknowledge. There's actually little question about what today's water data is telling us to do as a species: we need to conserve more, and we need to pollute less. But today's data is not going to help us forecast the emerging risks facing businesses and markets. It's rapidly becoming useless for that. It used to carry more value, but it's never actually told us with any real accuracy how much water we have or what's in it.
Let's consider the past decade of water usage statistics from each of the G20 nations. Now, what these numbers do not tell you is that none of these countries directly measures how much water they use. These are all estimates, and they're based on outdated models that don't consider the climate crisis, nor do they consider its impact on water.
In 2015, Chennai, India's sixth-largest city, was hit with the worst floods it had seen in a century. Today, its water reservoirs are nearly dry. It took three years to get here, three years of subaverage rainfall. Now, that's faster than most nations tabulate their national water data, including the US. And although there were forecasts that predicted severe shortages of water in Chennai, none of them could actually help us pinpoint exactly when or where this was going to happen. This is a new type of water problem, because the rate at which every aspect of our water cycle changes is accelerating. As a recent UN warning this month revealed, we are now facing one new climate emergency every single week.
There are greater uncertainties ahead for water quality. It's rare in most countries for most water bodies to be tested for more than a handful of contaminants in a year. Instead of testing, we use what's called the "dilution model" to manage pollution. Now, imagine I took an Olympic-sized swimming pool, I filled it with fresh water and I added one drop of mercury. That would dilute down to one part per billion mercury, which is well within what the World Health Organization considers safe. But if there was any unforeseen drop in how much water was available — less groundwater, less stream flow, less water in the pool — less dilution would take place, and things would get more toxic. So this is how most countries are managing pollution. They use this model to tell them how much pollution is safe. And it has clear weaknesses, but it worked well enough when we had abundant water and consistent weather patterns. Now that we don't, we're going to need to invest and develop new data-collection strategies. But before we do that, we have to start acting on the data we already have.
This is a jet fuel fire. As many of you may be aware, jet fuel emissions play an enormous role in climate change. What you might not be aware of is that the US Department of Defense is the world's largest consumer of jet fuel. And when they consume jet fuel, they mandate the use of the firefighting foam pictured here, which contains a class of chemicals called PFAS. Nobody uses more of this foam than the US Department of Defense, and every time it's used, PFAS finds its way into our water systems. Globally, militaries have been using this foam since the 1970s. We know PFAS causes cancer, birth defects, and it's now so pervasive in the environment that we seem to find it in nearly every living thing we test, including us. But so far, the US Department of Defense has not been held accountable for PFAS contamination, nor has it been held liable. And although there's an effort underway to phase out these firefighting foams, they're not embracing safer, effective alternatives. They're actually using other PFAS molecules, which may, for all we know, carry worse health consequences.
So today, government accountability is eroding to the point of elimination, and the risk of liability from water pollution is vanishing. What types of incentives does this create for investing in our water future? Over the past decade, the average early stage global investment in early stage water technology companies has totaled less than 30 million dollars every year. That's 0.12 percent of global venture capital for early stage companies. And public spending is not going up nearly fast enough. And a closer look at it reveals that water is not a priority. In 2014, the US federal government was spending 11 dollars per citizen on water infrastructure, versus 251 dollars on IT infrastructure. So when we don't use the data we have, we don't encourage investment in new technologies, we don't encourage more data collection and we certainly don't encourage investment in securing a water future.
So are we doomed? Part of what I'm still learning is how to balance the doom and the urgency with things we can do, because Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion don't want our hope — they want us to act.
So what can we do? It's hard to imagine life without a weather service, but before modern weather forecasting, we had no commercial air travel, it was common for ships to be lost at sea, and a single storm could produce a food shortage. Once we had radio and telegraph networks, all that was necessary to solve these problems was tracking the movement of storms. And that laid the foundation for a global data collection effort, one that every household and every business depends upon today. And this was as much the result of coordinated and consistent data collection as it was the result of producing a culture that saw greater value in openly assessing and sharing everything that it could find out and discover about the risks we face.
A global weather service for water would help us forecast water shortages. It could help us implement rationing well before reservoirs run dry. It could help us detect contamination before it spreads. It could protect our supply chains, secure our food supplies, and, perhaps most importantly, it would enable the precise estimation of risk necessary to insure against it.
We know we can do this because we've already done it with weather. But it's going to require resources. We need to encourage greater investment in water. Investors, venture capitalists: a portion of your funds and portfolios should be dedicated to water. Nothing is more valuable and, after all, businesses are going to need to understand water risks in order to remain competitive in the world we are entering. Aside from venture capital, there are also lots of promising government programs that encourage economic development through tax incentives.
A new option in the US that my company is using is called "opportunity zones." They offer favorable tax treatment for investing capital gains in designated distressed and low-income areas. Now, these are areas that are also facing staggering water risk, so this creates crucial incentives to work directly with the communities who need help most.
And if you're not looking to make this type of investment but you own land in the US, did you know that you can leverage your land to conserve water quality permanently with a conservation easement? You can assign the perpetual right to a local land trust to conserve your land and set specific water quality goals. And if you meet those goals, you can be rewarded with a substantial tax discount every year.
How many areas could our global community protect through these and other programs? They're powerful because they offer the access to real property necessary to lay the foundation for a global weather service for water. But this can only work if we use these programs as they are intended and not as mere vehicles for tax evasion. When the conservation easement was established, nobody could anticipate how ingrained in environmental movements corporate polluters would become. And we've become accustomed to companies talking about the climate crisis while doing nothing about it. This has undermined the legacy and the impact of these programs, but it also makes them ripe for reclamation. Why not use conservation easements as they were intended, to set and reach ambitious conservation goals? Why not create opportunities in opportunity zones? Because fundamentally, water security requires accountability. Accountability is not corporate polluters sponsoring environmental groups and museums. Those are conflicts of interest.
Accountability is: making the risk of liability too expensive to continue polluting and wasting our water. We can't keep settling for words. It's time to act. And where better to start than with our biggest polluters, particularly the US Department of Defense, which is taxpayer-funded. Who and what are we protecting when US soldiers, their families and the people who live near US military bases abroad are all drinking toxic water? Global security can no longer remain at odds with protecting our planet or our collective health. Our survival depends on it.
Similarly, agriculture in most countries depends on taxpayer-funded subsidies that are paid to farmers to secure and stabilize food supplies. These incentives are a crucial leverage point for us, because agriculture is responsible for consuming 70 percent of all the water we use every year. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff are the two biggest sources of water pollution. Let's restructure these subsidies to demand better water efficiency and less pollution.
Finally: we can't expect progress if we're unwilling to confront the conflicts of interest that suppress science, that undermine innovation and that discourage transparency. It is in the public interest to measure and to share everything we can learn and discover about the risks we face in water. Reality does not exist until it's measured. It doesn't just take technology to measure it. It takes our collective will.