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Innovating to Solve the World’s Water Challenges

With the release of “Dune: Part Two,” movie audiences worldwide will be treated to extreme (albeit fictional) examples of humans dealing with water scarcity and reuse. But while most of Earth is more habitable than Arrakis, Dune’s fictional desert planet, water sustainability has nevertheless rapidly become one of the greatest environmental challenges we face, across most of our own, real-life ecosystems.

Our water challenges, and the reasons for them, are many. From Africa to India to the Western United States, urban development in water-scarce areas is leading water demand to outstrip supply. Even in areas with adequate water resources, poverty and lack of infrastructure can prevent existing supplies from being sufficiently treated. This challenge is exacerbated by pollution, with industry and agriculture continuing to discharge untreated wastewater in most parts of the world. Climate change is also, according to the UN, “primarily a water crisis.” From floods and rising seas to disappearing snowpack, droughts and wildfires, new uncertainties in Earth’s water cycle add to the challenges for human access to clean water—and to biodiversity.

But solutions for managing these challenges exist. As the UN states, “safely reused wastewater is grossly undervalued as a potentially affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials.” With only 11% of estimated global household and industrial wastewater currently being reused, approximately 320 billion cubic meters have the potential to be treated and used again—more than 1000% of the world’s current desalination capacity.

One company squarely focused on water sustainability solutions is Xylem. Recently ranked #2 in Newsweek’s annual list of most sustainable companies, Xylem says it is the world’s largest company dealing only in water technology, with products that range from piping, pumps and other water management hardware, to software and end-to-end water management solutions for a wide range of industries and applications.

More specific to global water scarcity, Xylem says it has “the industry’s broadest range of treatment technologies” for water reuse. Indeed, one of the company’s key sustainability goals, released in its most recent sustainability report, is to treat 13 billion cubic meters of water for reuse by 2025. The goal is intended to leverage multiple technologies offered by the company, including sensor-based treatment and high-efficiency UV disinfection. Such goals are timely; in California, for instance, direct potable reuse (DPR) water regulations were just approved by the state’s water authority, streamlining the process for treating and reusing wastewater as potable water.

Xylem highlights other product innovations that could likewise help address water challenges at scale: improved leak detection products, supporting its goal of reducing more than 3.5 billion cubic meters of leaked water by 2025, and real-time sewer monitoring, which the company says can prevent more than 7 billion cubic meters in polluted water overflows. On the carbon emissions front, the company reports that a proprietary propeller design created enough efficiency to help it meet its 2025 goal of reducing the carbon footprint of water treatment by 2.8 million metric tons—two years early.

The company is using its own operations as proof of concept for many of its product sustainability goals. As of 2022, Xylem reported that 12 of its 22 major facilities used 100% process-water recycling, meaning no water was wasted during industrial processes. Additionally, 12 facilities saw zero waste to landfill from processes, and 17 used 100% renewable energy.

Other operational goals including sustainability-linked compensation, which Xylem has expanded beyond senior executives to include more of its staff. Some cash on hand is also being invested with community banks in underserved communities where Xylem operates. And another green finance effort aligns sustainability achievement with returns, via a demand deposit account whose interest rate is pegged to the company’s achievement of its 2025 sustainability goals. Each of these finance-related initiatives are notable in their own right, providing a more direct link between sustainability and corporate finance than most companies can lay claim to.

While Xylem’s recent acquisition of Evoqua has created a water treatment giant, solving the world’s water challenges will require scale that even Xylem cannot provide alone. But its product focus and operational goals serve as a model for what is possible, and provide a measure of hope that solutions remain within reach.