Currently, approximately 4 billion people live in water-scarce and -stressed regions, with nearly 1 billion people lacking access to safe drinking water and almost 1 million deaths per year from water-borne diseases (Figure 1). The 2030 Water Resources Group projected that by 2030 the world faces a 40 percent “gap” between water supply and demand under business as usual practices (e.g., public policy and technology). In addition to water scarcity impacts, the world also faces the obstacles flooding poses to economic growth, business continuity, and social well-being. For example, the Chennai flood in India in December 2015 was the worst flooding from rain storms in the last 100 years. Among a population of 7.6 million, hundreds of people were killed, millions were without safe drinking water, and business operations were severely disrupted.

Several global cities—from Johannesburg to Rio de Janeiro—are facing risks to their water supplies, and as a result are increasing their resiliency to changing hydrologic conditions. Research by CDP Water highlights the response of cities to these water risks, noting that the cities most concerned about their water supply are in Asia and Oceania (84 percent), with serious risks also identified in Africa (80 percent) and Latin America (75 percent). One hundred ninety-six cities reported the risks of water stress and scarcity (Figure 2), 132 reported a risk of declining water quality, and 103 reported a risk of flooding (Figure 3).

A recent study analyzed 70 surface water-supplied cities with populations exceeding 750,000 to determine the vulnerability of their water supplies— “the failure of an urban supply-basin to simultaneously meet demands from human, environmental, and agricultural users. ” Using a 2010 baseline and a 2040 scenario analysis to reflect increased demand from urban population growth and projected agricultural demand under historically average climate conditions (the authors did not consider climate change, even though it can potentially exacerbate or reduce urban water supply vulnerability). Their results indicate that, as of 2010, “36 percent of large cities are vulnerable as they compete for water with agricultural users.” The future brings more risks: The study found that by 2040, 44 percent of cities will be vulnerable due to increased agricultural and urban demands— unless they take additional measures. Of the vulnerable cities in 2040, the majority is river-supplied, with mean flows so low that the cities experience chronic water scarcity. In 2040, 13 of the 31 vulnerable cities would reduce their vulnerability by reallocating water to reduce environmental flows, and 15 would similarly benefit by transferring water from irrigated agriculture. Even so, approximately half of these cities remain vulnerable under either potential remedy.

Figure 1. Women fetching water as a daily routine
Figure 2. River Rhine with low water, Cologne, Germany
Figure 3. Hurrican Sandy aftermath, Flooded Tunnel, West Street, Lower Manhattan, New York

A 2016 report from the World Bank evaluated and presented the impacts from water scarcity on a regional and national scale. Among the conclusions:

  • Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could cost some regions as much as 6 percent of their GDP, spur migration, and spark conflict.
  • Growing populations, rising incomes, and expanding cities will combine to dramatically increase water demand, even as supply becomes more erratic and uncertain.
  • Without urgent action, water will become scarce in regions where it is currently abundant—such as Central Africa and East Asia—and water scarcity will worsen where it is already in short supply, such as the Middle East and Africa’s Sahel.
  • Food price spikes caused by droughts can inflame latent conflicts and drive migration. Where economic growth is impacted by rainfall, episodes of droughts and floods have generated waves of migration and spikes in violence within countries.

What is now needed are innovative strategies in public policy and technologies to address these water challenges. It is notable that cities are the most vulnerable to water challenges—and they are also leading the global response to these water risks by fostering innovation and collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

Urban Strategies: Sustainability and Resiliency

Many global cities are coming to understand that innovative public policies and technologies are needed to become more sustainable and resilient when faced with the impacts of climate change and increasing demand for water. Couple these trends with other issues such as aging water infrastructure, and a long-term strategy to ensure access to water for potable and non-potable uses becomes critical (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Flint, Michigan Water Tower

What are the water strategies being developed and implemented by cities to ensure long-term sustainability and resiliency? One approach is for cities to tap into the knowledge and resources of global water professional associations. For example, the International Water Association (IWA) has developed white paper outlining their Water Wise Communities initiative. The IWA Principles assist public sector leaders in developing and implementing their vision for sustainable urban water, which includes equitable and universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The goal of these principles is to encourage collaborative action based on a shared vision, to enable local governments, urban professionals, and individuals actively engage in addressing and finding solutions for managing all waters of the city. The IWA has built their Principles around three paradigm shifts:

1. Resources Are Limited. More people living in metropolitan areas means water, energy and materials need to be used carefully, reused and renewed. The goal is to deliver universal access to safe drinking water and for other uses—more efficient and effective use of a gallon or liter of water.

2. The Growth of Cities Offers Can Bring Economic Growth and Threats to Liveability. More populated, denser cities will be required to provide more efficient services. Water is essential for the well-being of citizens, their safety, and social inclusion in cities.

3. City Planning Means Planning for an Uncertain Future. Historical development trends are often not appropriate for planning future water systems, and climate change and population growth are uncertainties. By planning systems for greater modularity and fewer dependencies, cities can be better able to react to unforeseen trends and events.

The IWA has laid out four major levels of action that frame the 17 Principles; together, these four action levels offer a big-picture glimpse at methods for cities to craft solutions to meet their current and future water needs.

  • Regenerative Water Services
    • Replenish water bodies and ecosystems
    • Reduce the amount of water and energy used
    • Reuse, recover, and recycle
    • Use a systemic approach integrated with other services
    • Increase the modularity of systems and ensure multiple options
  • Water Sensitive urban Design
    • Enable regenerative water services
    • Design urban spaces to reduce flood risks
    • Enhance liveability with visible water
    • Modify and adapt urban materials to minimize environmental impact
  • Basin Connected Cities
    • Plan to secure water resources and mitigate drought
    • Protect the quality of water resources
    • Prepare for extreme events
  • Water-Wise Communities
    • Empowered citizens
    • Professionals aware of water co-benefits
    • Transdisciplinary planning teams
    • Policy makers enabling water-wise action
    • Leaders that engage and engender trust

The IWA Principles highlight the need for cities to be “basin connected.” The connectivity of the city to its watershed is essential, but I believe it needs to go further than watershed connectivity.

Consider the connection of the water utility to other critical resource issues such as power and agriculture (watershed, powershed, and foodshed). These three critical resource issues are inter-related (e.g., the energy – water – food nexus) with the water utility providing a critical role in ensuring economic development and business growth. While water utilities will not always provide water for energy and agriculture production, these sectors increasingly compete for water and as a result will need to align strategies and actions to ensure adequate resources to support growth. The opportunity to integrate systems such as energy, water, and food is most apparent in urban environments where connectivity between resources is critical to ensure sustainability and resiliency when facing the impacts of climate change and increasing demand.

Joshua Foss, an entrepreneur and designer of regenerative systems, has laid out an approach he calls “urban systems integration,” which is centered around building and strengthening the interconnections between subsystems within a city to add value to the whole urban system. It is nothing short of an attempt to “design out problems at the source and implement projects and programs that realize multiple goals with single, coordinated efforts.”

For Foss, integrating urban systems offers numerous benefits:

1. Far more effective resource management—waste from one part of the city can be used as a resource for another, creating a circular economy of resources

2. An integrated infrastructural business model for urban systems creates far greater performance with less cost—doing better with less.

3. Integrated urban systems create the possibility for decentralizing and localizing resource production and management, strengthening a city’s agility, responsiveness, and resilience.

4. Integrating urban systems can also create better, more attractive neighborhoods. For instance, green infrastructure can manage stormwater, reduce air/noise/water pollution, and heat islands, while also creating more comfortable and attractive spaces.

How do cities connect to their watershed, foodshed, powershed, and their customers? It is clear that digital technologies are facilitating connectivity across their value chain (water supply, infrastructure, and customers). In a digital world there is an increasing expectation that services such as water will be seamlessly connected to customers (Figure 5). Digital water technologies such as remote sensing, drones, inexpensive sensors, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) will vastly improve how we use water. (Figure 6). Those technologies will also facilitate innovation in more-traditional technology solutions such as water extraction (e.g., smart pumps) and treatment (e.g., real-time performance monitoring). The transformation of the water sector will not only come from purely digital water solutions, but also through how digital solutions enable adoption of other innovative technologies in the area of material sciences (e.g., graphene).

Figure 5. Representation of a smart home dashboard for energy and water
Figure 6. Representation of a digital dashboard to measure crop performance and inputs

Digital technologies will play a role in planning and redesigning resilient cities. Remote sensing technologies for flood prediction (e.g., Cloud to Street ) and comprehensive design tools for hydraulic modeling (e.g., Autodesk Storm and Sanitary Analysis ) are now available to manage stormwater runoff and flooding from extreme weather events. Also, microgrid strategies in the power sector are being adapted for urban water systems, which are also vulnerable to extreme weather events, resulting in significant impacts to clean water distribution, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management. Microgrids provide redundancy, fortify vulnerabilities, and can secure the resource supply chain.

How Does this Translate to Colorado and Denver?

Water innovation is critically needed in public policy, technology, funding/financing, business models and partnerships. The state of Colorado has already laid the groundwork for an innovation strategy: The state’s first-ever Water Plan was launched through then-Governor John Hickenlooper’s May 2013 executive order (Figure 7). After two years, the state water plan was released, and it became a catalyst for stakeholders to explore innovative approaches to achieving the goals of the plan.

Figure 7. View of Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains

Among the most prominent elements of the state water plan:

  • Water rights are property rights—and property owners are free to respond to marketplace economics of the marketplace and to continue to work within the state’s local control structure.
  • Every water conversation begins with conservation and must include water storage.
  • Funding for water projects is critically important. The state will work with water users and stakeholders to ensure financing options are available for water projects, and will work to make the best use of the portion of the state’s budget that is allocated for water resources.
  • Support projects that achieve multiple benefits, including environmental, recreation, and water-compact compliance, and projects that creatively move water through various uses and through shared facilities.
  • Front-load the state’s role in the permitting process to increase efficiency and effectiveness in water project permitting while properly mitigating negative environmental impacts.
  • Strengthen water outreach, education, and public engagement to equip Coloradans with the necessary information to make informed water choices.

The Colorado State Water plan, coupled with the leadership of the City and County of Denver, are designed to create sustainable and resilient economic development, business growth and ecosystem and social well-being. Denver’s 2020 Sustainability Goals, including goals for water quantity and water quality, create the roadmap for a sustainable city. The water goals include achieving full compliance with current and future permit requirements, reducing storm water outfall discharges, and making all Denver rivers and creeks “swimmable and fishable.” In addition, Denver has set water goals to reduce use of potable water for irrigation of parks and golf courses by 22 percent, reduce use of potable water in city buildings by 20 percent, reduce per capita use of potable water in Denver by 22 percent, and keep the rate of increase in absolute consumption of potable water below the rate of population increase.

Denver Water, an entity separate from the city’s municipal government, is an integral stakeholder to ensure a sustainable and resilient water supply for a growing Front Range population. Denver Water’s strategy is to drive conservation and water recycling. There are over a dozen water recycling programs in Colorado and Denver Water operates the largest recycled water system in the state, eventually aiming to free up enough drinking water to serve almost 43,000 households.

Perhaps most importantly Denver Water is working with Colorado State University to develop the National Western Water Innovation Center, a world-class center for water research, innovation and education. The State and Denver have also become catalysts for water innovation beyond the planned Denver Water and CSU Center. In 2017, the state launched TAP-IN Colorado, a “reverse-pitch innovation challenge” that seeks to bring fresh voices and new approaches to the water conversation. By bringing end users in front of the state’s collective water community to provide a “problem pitch,” TAP-IN puts a real face on the challenges Colorado faces in securing a sustainable water future. Challenges addressed as part of TAP-IN include water efficiency, natural resource conservation, and water quality.

In addition to state-led water initiatives, a number of additional notable projects are at work in Denver and Colorado:

  • 10.10.10, is a platform, launched in 2015 as a project of the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center with support from the Walton and Gates Family Foundations, to tackle, through public education and engagement, the wicked problems that impact cities and people throughout the world. In October 2017, 10.10.10 unveiled its Cities (Water and Infrastructure) initiative.
  • 10.10.10’s programs have created eight new ventures, including Spout (formerly Microlyze), a revolutionary approach to crowdsourcing in-home water quality data in real-time. Spout’s founder, Ari Kaufman has raised $ 2 million and is working with major municipalities to pilot their Waterlyzer and identify the location of potable water contamination, especially lead.
  • The Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, created in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, in 2018 is bringing together the leaders of 10 companies working in water, waste, renewable energy, and more. The cohort will receive three months of mentorship from world-class scientists and subject-matter experts to help them innovate to make the world a better place to live.
  • WetDATA is a Water Data and Innovation Hub that seeks to support data-driven water decision making, provide access to relevant water data to everyone, identify water risks for businesses, NGOs, and the public sector, and incubate and accelerate innovative water technologies. By partnering with academic institutions, national research labs, the private sector, foundations, and governments, WetDATA aims to quicken the pace of water innovation.

Path Forward

Business-as-usual practices will not be sufficient for the future due to the global population growth, changes in demand for water, energy, food, and urbanization. Cities are at the forefront of developing sustainable and resilient solutions to equitable access to water (along with food and energy). These solutions require engagement of civil society, diverse stakeholder groups, and those from outside the water sector. Entrepreneurs with a fresh view of the “wicked problem” of water and their new ideas are essential to addressing 21st century water challenges. We need to be mindful that water challenges drive innovation and create business opportunities and economic development.

Denver and the State of Colorado are one of the leaders in identifying and scaling innovative solutions to 21st Century water challenges by engaging with public sector, private enterprises, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions.


Thank you to Deanna Schindler for the graphics and Cassidy White for editing. Also thank you to Tom Higley, Founder and CEO of 10.10.10 and Ari Kaufman, Founder and CEO of Spout for encouraging me to be part of the entrepreneurial community in Denver, Colorado.


  1. 2030 Water Resources Group [online] (2009).
  2. Potarazu, S. Chennai floods a climate change wake-up call for world. CNN [online] (December 19, 2015) (
  3. CDP. US$9.5 billion city water projects open for investment. [online] (August 29, 2017) (
  4. Padowski, JC & Gorelick, S. Global analysis of urban surface water supply vulnerability. Environmental Research Letters [online] 9, 1-8 (2014) (
  5. The World Bank [online] (2016).
  6. International Water Association [online] (2016).
  7. Foss, J. Why future cities will integrate urban systems. Medium [online] (July 20, 2018) (
  8. Karmous-Edwards, G & Sarni, W. What is a water utility in a digital world? Water Finance & Management [online] (June 11, 2018) (
  9. Cloud to Street [online] (2018).
  10. Autodesk [online] (2018).
  11. Falco, GJ & Webb, R Wm. Water microgrids: The future of water infrastructure resilience. Procedia Engineering [online] 118, 50–57 (2015)(
  12. State of Colorado [online] (2018).
  13. Denver Office of Sustainability [online].
  14. Denver Water [online] (2017).
  15. TAP-IN Colorado [online] (2018).
  16. 10.10.10 [online] (2018).
  17. Techstars [online] (2018).
  18. WetDATA [online] (2018).
  19. Sarni, W. Deflecting the scarcity trajectory: Innovation at the water, energy, and food nexus. Deloitte University Press (July 27, 2015).
  20. United Nations. 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN. [online] (May 2018) (



Will Sarni

Founder and CEO of Water Foundry. He is an advisor to multinationals, water technology companies, investors, multi-lateral development banks and NGOs. He is an investor in water technology start-ups with...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *