Guest Column | August 4, 2016

Thicker Than Water: Understanding What Really Works When Taking On Water Scarcity

Drip

By Jane Hughes

As public and private sector leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere confront the increasingly harsh realities of water scarcity, some of the media coverage has understandably pointed to lessons learned in Australia. On the driest inhabited continent on Earth, Australian water sector leaders have gained hard-won insights about the fight against drought. Yet many accounts of the experience focus on technical expertise and processes. And while systems and technologies are very important, to produce enduring results that effectively target water scarcity, experience shows that we also have to look beyond tactics.

This reality is highlighted in the results of a survey JMW conducted recently with leaders of water utilities in Australia. The respondents were key players at the helm during the Millennium drought that gripped the country from the late 1990s through 2012. And despite their ability to survive the worst water crisis in history, all survey participants said there remains a serious gap when it comes to translating industry processes and systems into lasting changes in consumption. Moreover, despite the numerous groundbreaking technologies developed in Australia to combat drought, the survey results demonstrate a demand for something beyond tactical — even strategic — solutions: a critical need for solutions to be delivered in collaboration.

“Whether it be drought or aging infrastructure, a changing focus from government, or the challenges of the water-energy nexus, what organizations are facing is that there’s only so far they can go in isolation,” observes my Asia Pacific colleague Conrad Amos. “And that may require some big leaps in the U.S., because of how quickly water scarcity could take hold, and because most leaders and organizations haven’t typically had to deal with this before.”

Indeed, in America, where 40 of 50 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years, overall water awareness is on the rise. There is also recognition of the water-energy nexus: the relationship between how much water is used to generate energy, and conversely, how much energy is used to collect, clean, store, treat, and move water. The U.S. Department of Energy has outlined six strategic pillars to address that intersection, emphasizing the need for collaboration between companies within the water and energy industries, as well as across industries.

On the one hand, there are recent world-leading innovations developed in Australia that can now be employed around the world. These include water-energy solutions such as waste-to-energy programs that feed power into water treatment plants, solar and wind renewable energy initiatives, and processes redesigned with the goal of making utilities carbon neutral. Yet despite many advances, there is a strong skepticism about how much sustainable progress has been made.  

When asked what has caused the most radical shift in consumer behavior, the majority of survey respondents said, “drought.” While price signals, education, water-saving targets, and awareness also factored into opinions about initiatives generating progress, leaders in Australia also expressed doubt about the lasting effectiveness of such approaches in the absence of water scarcity.  As one participant said: “Targets help if there is a reason, but fade over time, especially when water is cheap.” Another observed that education and awareness, price signals, and targets “have a role, but only when there is a scarcity issue to be managed in partnership with a willing community.”

“Certainly in Australia, everything changed when it started raining again,” comments Amos. “Conversely, everything can change when people begin to contend with the reality, as they did in California, that they may not be able to count on turning on the tap and water being there.” And to his point, all survey respondents, in their answers to one or more questions, articulated a call for changing consumer behavior — what one respondent described as “a cultural change for the whole of the community.”

Part of the bottom line here: people respond and change their behaviors when there is scarcity. And in absence of that kind of impetus, leadership plays a critical role in generating the heightened stakeholder engagement needed for positive, sustainable change. As one utility leader noted: “Organizations that find a way to engage people in the right way at the right level seem most adept at operating and growing in this climate,” adding that “organizations who think and act as if it’s just about engineering and building things don’t seem to fare so well.”

In keeping with such observations, “winning the drought” in California after the driest four-year period in state history involved a shift in the way regular citizens think about water usage. It should also be noted that it occurred after state lawmakers approved no-nonsense legislation mandating that no community could pump more water from underground aquifers than it could refill, either via nature or human intervention. This points to another lesson from Australia, that there are many layers to successful approaches to water scarcity, from implementing policy changes to shifting consumer attitudes and ramping up industry partnerships.

“The challenges here are of such a scale and magnitude, collaboration is increasingly emerging as an essential best practice when it comes to tackling water scarcity,” observes another JMW colleague in Australia, Deborah Kiers. “Whether it’s drought or flood, or something else, the answers need to come from industry utilities working together, government collaborating with industry, and water and energy working together to come up with solutions.”

Bureaucratic challenges aside, the only way to sort out these layered issues is working together. This means between governments, between water companies, between public and private sectors, between water and energy utilities — and amongst communities, governments, and utilities. The water challenges of the present and future will require more than smart engineering and technology; they must be delivered in the context of leadership that engages consumers and inspires collaborative work involving both the private and public sectors.

As one of our clients in the region put it: “If you would have told me five years ago there needs to be industry collaboration, I would have told you we already do that. But the shift has consisted of going from, ‘Hey, this utility has come up with this great idea, and you guys should implement it too, here’s how’…to ‘we’ve got this challenge to deliver on something and don’t know how to do it yet, do you want to get in a room and figure it out together?’”

And there’s a real upside in getting it right with collaboration. “The rewards include the opportunity to resolve potential difficulties before they arise, as well as the ability to shift attitudes, perspectives, and assumptions,” says Kiers. “It can also pave the way for breakthrough results.” Survey responses recognized this value, calling for greater public sector funding of partnership-driven initiatives — especially in the "good times," not always in response to dire straits. And to have the greatest impact, there has to be room for a number of stakeholders at the table.

For instance, my Asia Pacific colleagues are now working with three utilities in Australia looking to deliver a new digital metering initiative. Rather than developing separate programs, they’re approaching the effort with a broader lens and teaming up on all aspects of the effort, from procurement to rollout, consumer education, and even replication globally. They’re also helping water industry clients deal with the tricky aspects of water flow between states. We’re beginning to see a paradigm shift from utilities acting as organization-centric monopolies to organizations well aware of the advantages of taking on complex issues in concert with other stakeholders.

That said, with competing priorities, consumer demands, geographic and political differences, and very public profiles, collaborative efforts can be incredibly difficult to carry out in practice. Survey respondents consistently commented on the role of government in helping to create the conditions for collaboration. In fact, one of JMW’s engagements right now in Australia is working with a state government to help them do just that.

For shifts that truly take root and yield results in the water sector, the depths of the issues involved must not only be acknowledged, but taken on by far more than a single water utility here and there. What’s required is unyielding intra- and cross-sector collaboration as well as energy and water partnership, and the all-important community engagement. There is no blueprint that will make it easy all the time, but there is guidance from pioneers who’ve witnessed the huge difference it can make. There is great promise in bringing together communities, governments, and utilities to develop and implement solutions. And with water still running from the taps in the U.S., the time to begin that work is now.

Jane Hughes has over 20 years of experience supporting leaders and their organizations as a coach, consultant, and project manager, both in the public and private sectors. In addition to her consulting track record, she has a background deep in operational and management experience across diverse sectors in the U.S. and Europe. JMW is a management consultancy with more than 30 years' experience helping some of the world's most successful businesses create and realize high-impact outcomes and dramatic shifts in performance. janeh@jmw.com | linkedin.com/in/janeyhughes

Image credit: "69/365," Jeff Drongowski © 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/