Commentary: From Extractive to Sustainable: A Way Forward for the Water Sector

By Will Sarni & Austin Alexander

Humanity has a long history of extracting natural resources while ignoring damage done to the environment, to communities and to the long-term health and prosperity of whole societies. Traditional approaches to forestry and mining have famously taken their toll, leading these sectors to rethink how resources are managed. But water – arguably our most precious resource – has rarely featured in conversations about extractive industries. It’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses and change that. Stewardship requires that we be open about how we have managed water in the past, and what we must strive for in the future.

Extractive industries have operated with a “linear economy” approach to natural resources. We take a natural resource, turn it into a product that is sold to a customer, and eventually it is disposed of or considered waste. That’s where it ends, with little to no investment in ensuring the sustainability of the raw materials. The mindset is “There will always be plenty.” But will there?

The water sector has followed a similar pattern. Models for water management have skewed towards meeting the needs of communities today – with less regard for the long-term sustainability of water extraction. Shrinking supplies, rising populations and under-investment in infrastructure and innovation have all created a sector characterized by fragility. In turn, we have a cycle of reactive response from within, which makes it difficult to invest in a balanced, long-term approach.

But as water challenges intensify around the world, conventional assumptions about water just aren’t sustainable resulting in a sector that is fragile to disruptions such as extreme weather events and pandemics. To achieve water security, our sector must transition from an extractive, fragile industry to one that is strategic, sustainable and resilient.

What is the path to an anti-fragile water sector?

First, we must adopt the strategies and technologies that will make our industry circular and diversified. We must increase water recycling and reuse in homes, cities and water-hungry industries like agriculture, and diversify water sources by investing in localized water supply and treatment systems.

Communities in developing countries such as Mali and Bolivia have had success with this approach to smaller-scale water collection and purification thanks to advances in technology. However, places with a working central water supply still stand to benefit from sourcing and treating water locally in tandem. Not only will they gain access to a sustainable, cost-effective and less-energy intensive alternative, but the pressure on the main water network will be dramatically reduced.

Digital technologies will accelerate progress in other areas of the water cycle too. Remote sensing, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, for example, enable real-time water quality, quantity and asset performance monitoring that improves the sustainability of water resources and resiliency of infrastructure.

Second, we must bring all stakeholders with us – from consumers to NGOs and civil society. Right now, data water data and actionable information is difficult to access from public sector databases and, more importantly, difficult to understand for the layperson. By putting accessible data into the hands of all stakeholders, we start to shed light on the problems with an extractive water sector. We open up the potential to accelerate technology adoption and spark innovation in business models, financing and public policies.

We’ve watched as the energy sector has made successful strides transitioning to renewables – leveraging innovative technologies to make it happen. IoT-enabled devices have unleashed a new level of transparency and operational insight that have made smart grid technology a reality. Digital solutions detect minute changes in electricity supply and demand, providing real-time data to inform decision making.

The water sector has the same opportunity, and the same imperative. We also have a distinct advantage: We have the potential to transition from extractive to renewable faster than any other sector previously has. Many of the required technologies and approaches are already being deployed by leading utilities and industrial water users. These innovations, along with processes and policies, create accountability, reduce cost and risk and unlock new opportunities.

We can build an antifragile water sector. And we can do it now. We have the technology to make this transition, today, and the advantage of lessons from other industries. But it’s on all of us to drive progress, from technology vendors and water managers to regulators and governments. Public and private sector must move forward in lockstep to scale the strategies and technologies that will ensure the sustainability of this essential resource.


Will Sarni is founder and CEO of Water Foundry and founder and general partner of the Colorado River Basin Fund. He is an internationally recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation.

Austin Alexander is vice president of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at Xylem, responsible for the company’s global sustainability programs, diversity and inclusion, and Xylem’s social value program, Watermark. She joined Xylem in 2013 and has previously held roles in customer service, engineering and sales for Xylem’s Flygt brand.

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