The Hunt for Clean Water

Business Lessons from the Sonoran Desert to Nepal

Apr 02, 2019
Logistics

By DARYL JAMES

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Phoenix residents shrug when summer temperatures top 110 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s a dry heat,” they say. Despite the low humidity, an Arizona-based startup has found a way to pull safe drinking water from the atmosphere using nothing but sunlight and air.

Zero Mass Water, founded in 2014, combines solar technology, materials science and data analytics to hack the Sonoran Desert without plugging into the grid.

“If we can make water here — one of the driest places in the world — we can make it anywhere,” says Colin Goddard, MBA ’18, who joined the company in September 2018 shortly after graduation.

Like others in the Maryland Smith community, Goddard recognizes the power of business to deliver scalable solutions to water insecurity and related climate challenges around the world.

FORGOTTEN PEOPLE

Zero Mass Water already has started scaling up with Source Hydropanel installations at schools, homes and offices in more than 18 countries.

The implications are huge in a world where 2 billion people lack reliable access to clean water. Even developed countries face risks.

“Despite what people think about the problem being contained to Sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, there are many communities — way too many — here in the United States suffering from the same thing,” says Goddard, the company’s business development director for North America.

Aging infrastructure, misuse of resources and climate change contribute to water scarcity. But Goddard frames the problem in terms of technology.

“It’s essentially the same as it was in the Roman era,” he says. “We wait for snow to melt up high in the mountains, then run into streams to go to central plants to be processed and then distributed through a network of pipes into someone’s residence.”

The system leaves communities vulnerable to changing weather patterns, extreme storms, pollution, corrosion and water disputes.

“We bypass all of that, taking in the air around the house, extracting the water vapor from it, converting vapor into liquid water and dispensing drinking water inside,” Goddard says. “It gives every person an ability to own their water supply, and to know where it came from and that it’s clean.”

People who drink directly from the tap without worry might not appreciate the breakthrough. But Goddard has toured water-stressed communities from the Appalachians to Flint, Mich., and seen the impact.

“These are our neighbors, trying to drink water that everyone else takes for granted,” he says. “They feel forgotten.”

Goddard says his company’s Hydropanel technology is solid. The bigger challenge now is getting people to accept a new way of thinking about water distribution after centuries of doing it another way.

Entrenched players, including policymakers who control public funding, typically respond with skepticism to disruptive technology. “A new and innovative idea takes some engagement to get people to make that leap,” Goddard says.

CRISIS OF TRUST

Communications strategist Emily Chan, MBA ’09, understands the power of storytelling to change hearts and minds.

As senior vice president at Edelman, a global communications marketing firm, she helps West Coast clients grow their sustainability programs through Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose boutique agency.

“At the core of what we do is storytelling,” says Chan, who worked in the nonprofit sector in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at Maryland Smith.

She says doing the right thing for the right reason is not always enough. Organizations must also communicate their social purpose in clear, accessible ways.

Social advocates sometimes use fear to create a sense of urgency. But Chan says the underlying call to action must convey optimism.

“People need to see that positive change can happen and their actions can make a difference,” she says. “That’s the story.”

Before consumers will change their behavior, however, they need confidence in the messenger. That type of trust is increasingly rare.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global survey of consumer sentiment, shows plunging credibility of business, government, NGO and media organizations worldwide. The cynicism is especially pronounced in the United States, which saw a 37-point drop in trust across all sectors year-over-year.

Chan saw the cynicism on full display when the U.S. government released its fourth annual National Climate Assessment in November 2018. Many people accepted the findings, but others dismissed the report as overhyped and politically motivated.

Organizations that promote water conservation might struggle to gain traction in such a polarized environment. But Chan says the Edelman survey provides clues for how to win support.

One key is C-suite engagement. “Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they expect CEOs to take the lead on policy change rather than waiting for lawmakers to intervene,” Chan says.

That’s partly because consumers trust business more than government, as measured in the survey. More generally, Chan says, consumers respond when they see leaders take an authentic interest in a cause.

“People don’t want fake,” Chan says. “They want to see leaders get involved and care.”

DAY ZERO

Garrett Zink ’14, manager of Social Impact & Public Affairs at Marriott International, saw leaders at his company get involved as “Day Zero” approached in Cape Town, South Africa.

Climate change forecasts sometimes talk about consequences in the distant future. But Cape Town’s mayor marked April 12, 2018, as the day suburban taps would be shut off because of low reservoir levels amidst a lingering drought.

“People banded together,” Zink says. “They took water conservation seriously, and we led the way at our hotels.”

The Westin Cape Town constructed an on-site desalination plant to convert seawater into drinking water for guests at the four-and-a-half star hotel and five other Marriott properties in the region.

Other solutions included special filters to aerate water, re-evaluation of laundry services and educational displays in hotel lobbies showing current dam levels. Fortuitous rainfall pushed Day Zero into 2019, but Zink says Marriott leaders will stay engaged.

“We want to do good wherever we do business,” he says. “We can’t build hotels in communities that aren’t thriving.”

His role at corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., has included development of Serve 360, an overarching strategy for all 6,700 hotels in the Marriott family. Goals include a 15 percent reduction in water usage by 2025.

The process starts with site studies before Marriott even begins construction on a new property. “We have water conservation plans in place from the very beginning,” Zink says.

Some tactics, such as adding a desalination plant, make sense at some properties but not others. Other tactics, such as installing low-flow fixtures, might work everywhere. “It’s a global strategy with local implementation,” Zink says.

The key in hospitality is to save water without degrading the customer experience. Some programs are opt-in for guests, but most adjustments happen behind the scenes.

“We want customers to trust Marriott, so they know we are working on water conservation even when they aren’t thinking about it,” Zink says. 

TRUE COST OF WATER

Many families can’t help thinking about water.

“There isn’t a mother in the developing world who hasn’t dealt with a child suffering from a bout of diarrhea due to poor water quality,” says marine conservationist Johanna Polsenberg, EMBA ’07.

She recently returned from an expatriate assignment in Gabon on the Atlantic coast of Central Africa, where people who can’t afford many luxuries pay premium prices for filtered water.

Public utilities sell the vital resource for less at the tap, but families travel instead to buy bottled water and haul it back to their houses.

“Dirty water may be cheaper up front,” says Polsenberg, who earned a PhD in biology and ecosystem ecology at Stanford University before coming to Smith. “But you pay later with illnesses. That’s the true cost of water.”

Her own family made major adjustments when she moved from the United States with her husband and two boys. “We would go days without fresh water. Days. And this was in the capital city, a mile from the capitol building,” Polsenberg says.

Conditions improved when the Gabonese government started working with a French company to modernize water infrastructure. But Polsenberg says the plastic containers remained a common sight.

Due to inadequate waste management systems, she says the bottles often ended up in rivers and then flowed downstream to the coast.

“As a marine conservationist, I’m looking upstream with my hands on my hips going, ‘Come on, guys! Don’t send all this junk down the river,’” Polsenberg says.

Once pollution reaches the ocean, she says different problems emerge beyond public health risks.

“Talking about clean ocean water is talking about fish and food,” Polsenberg says. “It’s talking about jobs, tourism, climate change and becoming more resilient to oil shock.”

Polsenberg, who worked at the time as senior director of governance and policy at Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, now raises sheep with her family in Vermont.

She also teaches skiing and middle school science. And she is starting her own consulting firm focused on governance.

“I’m curiosity driven,” she says. “I don’t want to do anything for more than three or four years, which means I will never have seniority in any field. But my education and background let me make lateral moves to places like Africa when I want to experience Africa.”

Polsenberg also has traveled through Asia and lived in the Bahamas and Alaska. During her expatriate assignment in Gabon, she remembers exploring the marketplaces and seeing the potential for business solutions.

“Everybody has something they’re selling — a little blanket where they’re selling a handful of onions,” she says. “There’s got to be a way that we can supply filtered water using local sources and reusable vessels.”

Corruption remains a problem in many places, but multinational firms like Unilever and Coca-Cola have proved that ethical business models can work at the bottom of the social pyramid.

“The private sector controls the levers in most of the developing world,” Polsenberg says. “They have the financial incentives. We should be able to crack this nut.”

BUSINESS NOT AS USUAL

Anyone who has spent time in Malta understands the urgency of the challenge. Despite seawater visible in all directions, the European Union member is one of the top 10 water-scarce countries in the world.

Kimberlee Robertella Glinka, director of Smith’s Center for Social Value Creation, lived on the Mediterranean island-nation during a graduate dual degree program with James Madison University and the University of Malta.

“Nature provides about half of the water needed,” Glinka says. “The rest comes through desalination, an expensive process.”

Illegal pumping and overuse have stressed the available limestone aquifers. “Seawater intrusion of freshwater reserves and pollution from urban and agricultural sources exacerbates the problem,” she says.

While learning to cope with water scarcity in her personal life, Glinka studied environmental resource management at school. “Much of the coursework focused on water,” she says. “We were learning in the classroom while living in a microcosm of the challenges we face on a global scale.”

She traces Malta’s problems to ancient times, when deforestation began in connection with the building of temples. Forests disappeared, the soil eroded and aquifers became stressed.

From then until now, resource management has continued to be an issue on the island. But Glinka still sees potential for large-scale, market-based solutions that reward investors without robbing future generations.

Today, she says, business and public policy partners are helping the Maltese to consume less water. The country has instituted a pricing mechanism where domestic residential users pay a standard rate for the first 33 cubic meters consumed per year. When that quantity is exceeded, the price increases.

“Business has so much potential,” Glinka says. “But for the most part, we’ve gotten it wrong in terms of how we use our resources.”

She says her undergraduate business program in Pennsylvania largely ignored social and environmental issues. But rather than quit business as a career track, she decided to stay and be a voice for change from the inside.

“My personal mission is to figure out how to transform business as usual,” she says. “It’s a journey.”

Now Glinka works from the inside at Smith. “I can come here and work on programming,” she says. “I can work on partnerships and collaborations that bring these issues to the forefront.”

She also focuses on education at home, starting with her son. He does not face resource scarcity like the Maltese, but she teaches him the value of water when he bathes or plays in the sink.

“When he’s done washing his toy cars, he knows not to tip the bowl over,” Glinka says. “Instead, he comes with me, and together we walk around the house watering the plants.”

SPEED OF NATURE

Outdoor enthusiast Charles “Chuck” Kovatch, EMBA ’11, learned his own lessons about respecting nature during a two-week trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

“People can climb faster than their bodies can adapt,” he says. “But if you give it time and respect the pace of nature, your body will acclimate itself to the changing elevation.”

His patience paid off with spectacular views at the Khumbu Icefall. “Inside the glacier you could see and hear literal waterfalls and massive amounts of water flowing,” he says. “There’s nothing like the bright glacial blue water, so cold and crisp and clear.”

The same need for patience guides policy decisions at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where Kovatch serves as an environmental scientist in the Office of Water.

He says rivers, lakes and streams have a natural buffering capacity, much like the human body. But the healing process takes time, and defense systems can be overwhelmed by rapid change.

“Humans can move faster than nature,” Kovatch says. “That’s where we have to stand and try to help it.”

His passion for environmental protection started in his youth, while growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania. “Anytime I wanted to go running or hiking, there were hills,” he says. “If you weren’t going up, you were going down.”

Curiosity about the world around him led to an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry. After working for two years in a drinking water treatment, Kovatch earned a Master of Science in Environmental Toxicology at the University of South Carolina and joined the EPA.

He enrolled in the Smith Executive MBA program when his career led him to the intersection of public policy, science and business.

“I still wear a science hat,” he says. “But having that extra lens of a business perspective allows me to be more effective and more transferable.”

Among other things, Kovatch says his business skills have helped him better bridge the various sectors. He is currently exploring ways to increase incentives and remove policy barriers, so investors have stronger incentives to fund public infrastructure projects that improve water system health and mitigate environmental impacts caused from development.

Kovatch says landowners and bankers want to understand the benefits and challenges of a potential investment opportunity, and he is helping to build the foundation for a robust environmental marketplace where public-private interactions and corporate social participation can occur.

These projects need information to demonstrate effectiveness, and advances in technology are providing some creative solutions that measure and display environmental outcomes.

“One area of need is better data and analytics,” Kovatch says. “You have to collect the right data and pull it together to make informed water resource decisions.”

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