Overcoming Us

Albert H. Cho
Vice President, Strategy and Business Development
Xylem Inc

The biggest threat to the future resiliency of urban water supplies is not an external force, such as drought or climate change, though these are clearly fundamental challenges. Nor is it a question of lacking technology or viable models for sustainable water management: myriad solutions are available and tested at scale. Rather, the biggest challenge is us – more specifically, our collective inability to mobilize an engaged and informed constituency capable of motivating decision-makers to invest in the infrastructure we need to prepare for a more water-scarce future.

Proponents of investments to boost urban resilience to drought are swimming against powerful political currents: widespread public apathy about water, concentrated resistance to public spending, and misunderstanding of key solutions, such as technology for water recycling and reuse. As political scientist Mancur Olson observed, investments in public goods - such as water infrastructure - are subject to a tragic “logic of collective action.” It’s easier to scuttle investment in widely shared public goods than to mobilize broadly distributed beneficiaries in support of vital but under-appreciated services. This is nothing new. It’s how the U.S. developed a $384 billion investment deficit that is literally eating away at our country’s essential water infrastructure.

What’s changed is the urgency of our water challenges. As demographic forces increase demand in water-scarce states and droughts wreak havoc on supply, the need to transform our practices and our infrastructure – for example, to embrace water recycling – will intensify. Inevitably, this transformation will require investments to upgrade treatment plants and water delivery infrastructure, which will in turn require resource mobilization. Xylem’s research suggests that, when asked, most Americans support increases in water rates to fund more resilient water infrastructure – but the loudest voices at most meetings attended by public utility commissioners belong to a concentrated minority of people who oppose new investment.

Despite the difficulties, I remain optimistic about our ability to change course. First, communities are increasingly aware that a resilient water supply is vital to economic competitiveness, and that future job creation will depend in part on water availability. With innovative economic development leaders in cities like Cincinnati advertising abundant quantities of the lowest-cost water in North America to attract manufacturing back to the city, can other cities afford not to invest in this competitive advantage? Second, I hold out hope that as rising generations (Gen X and the Millennials) come to power, they will understand the gaping deficit in our nation’s infrastructure is a liability that will materially constrain their prosperity unless addressed. And third, I believe that technological and social innovation –– ranging from national-scale water recycling systems in Singapore to online organizing platforms that can mobilize supporters of water infrastructure – can educate, inform and engage the public and build an active constituency for investment in resilient water supplies. San Francisco has used unconventional public awareness campaigns to mobilize support for sewer infrastructure investment, and other cities are launching outreach initiatives to increase understanding of direct potable reuse. With water scarcity challenges looming across the United States, can other municipalities afford not to do the same?

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