Guest Column | February 22, 2017

Call To Action For Water Stakeholders: Collaborate

By Elizabeth Dorey

In a recent column, Water Online Associate Editor Peter Chawaga wrote about a new plan for drinking water safety in the Trump era. In part, he references a late-2016 U.S. EPA Call to Action to improve the safety and reliability of the nation's drinking water.

I found it compelling that the Call to Action’s sub-headline reads: "Plan depends on collaboration among all levels of government, utilities, private sector." My colleagues and I couldn’t possibly agree more with this statement. Having worked with water organizations around the world — including in Australia, the globe’s most drought-ridden inhabited continent — we have seen first-hand that the answer to water scarcity isn’t rain or a technological innovation here and there; the answer lies in people. People at all levels of government, utilities, and the private sector must collaborate in unprecedented ways to combat drought and other water issues.

Nearly 1.6 billion people now live in countries with water scarcity, according to the World Bank, which reports that figure could double in the coming two decades. Moreover, water demand is growing in concert with growing populations and their economies — putting some regions of the world on a trajectory to decline in growth at a rate of 6 percent GDP or more by 2050 because of water-related losses.

Well-intentioned leaders and organizations have rolled up their sleeves, redoubling their efforts to develop new technologies and processes. And while this is a good thing, in a vacuum, it won’t deliver the transformations required to prevail over water scarcity. For this work to make the lasting difference it could, it must be in the context of collaboration.

This is a statement rooted in the experience and the success of water organizations we have had the privilege to work with, especially in recent years. In particular, I point to tremendous advances we have seen in Australia on the heels of the Millennial Drought, which began in the late 1990s and lasted for more than a decade. Water organizations such as Goulburn-Murray Water in rural Victoria and Yarra Valley Water in Melbourne have delivered well-documented transformations in the face of steep challenges. While these organizations faced down very different obstacles, they produced similarly impressive results, including:

  • inventing and implementing creative solutions to cost challenges;
  • generating performance breakthroughs in projects to deliver more high-quality infrastructure at lower cost;
  • creating highly effective public-private partnerships and alliances, resulting in high-impact outcomes;
  • reshaping organizations to be a match for their revenues; and
  • better educating customers to understand the value and costs associated with providing a safe and reliable water supply.

Their results could not have been achieved without a high degree of collaboration at all levels — within organizations and teams, amongst water utilities, and between the water and energy sectors. Indeed, when it comes to the water-energy nexus, we see waste-to-energy technologies among the key solutions that can help address scarcity challenges — including groundbreaking waste-to-water methodologies. The leaders of these efforts have been outspoken about the need for true partnership throughout the water sector and beyond.

Anne Farquhar, General Manager for People and Culture at Yarra Valley Water, puts partnering at the top of the list of reasons that her organization was able to deliver historic results over a five-year timeframe post-drought, from reducing water quality complaints by 30 percent to cutting operating expenditures by more than 20 percent and improving a key safety metric by 80 percent. “If we had not collaborated with organizations both within and outside the water sector, we simply would not have seen these results,” she says. “And we certainly would not have delivered the dramatic innovations and improvements that are proving sustainable over time.”

My colleagues in Asia Pacific are now working with three utilities in Australia looking to deliver on new initiatives ranging from digital metering to the most challenging aspects of how water flows between states. Even five years ago, such initiatives were unheard of — but with greater complexity of issues and ever greater pressure to deliver sustainable solutions, structured collaborations are becoming part of day-to-day best practice for the organizations involved. Moreover, we have witnessed tremendous upsides to partnering effectively: Shifts in people’s perspectives and assumptions that unleash enhanced capacities to invent and innovate, persist through adversity, and ultimately deliver results well beyond what people believed was possible.

Now, I wouldn’t make the case that collaboration is always easy. Sadly, we have seen collaborative ventures fail — or nearly fail — when carried out without very clear, collectively-held objectives and agreed-upon ways of working together. But with the right footing from the outset, organizations partnering — across territories, across sectors, and even despite competing priorities — can deliver game-changing results. And that is what is demanded of the water industry, now more than ever before.

Elizabeth Dorey is an author and capital projects consultant with special expertise in the water and energy sectors. In her work with clients of JMW Consultants, she helps leaders, teams, and organizations deliver large-scale and complex capital projects by strategically overcoming obstacles and elevating performance. Ms. Dorey also serves as business leader for JMW's Americas Group. She holds a bachelor's degree in finance with a minor in international business from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, and is based in in Houston, Texas.