We need to build
a weather service for water. Yet, until we collectively
demand accountability, the incentives to fund it will not exist. The first time I spoke at a conference
was here at TED, eight years ago. Fresh out of grad school,
little did I know that in those few minutes onstage, I was framing the questions
I was going to be asked for the next decade. And, like too many 20-somethings, I expected to solve
the world’s problems — more specifically,
the world’s water problems — with my technology. I had a lot to learn. It was seductive, believing that our biggest
water quality problems persist because they’re so hard to identify. And I presumed that we just needed simpler, faster
and more affordable sensors. I was wrong. While it’s true that
managing tomorrow’s water risk is going to require better data
and more technology, today we’re barely using
the little water data that we have. Our biggest water problems persist
because of what we don’t do and the problems we fail to acknowledge. There’s actually little question about what today’s water data
is telling us to do as a species: we need to conserve more, and we need to pollute less. But today’s data is not going to help us
forecast the emerging risks facing businesses and markets. It’s rapidly becoming useless for that. It used to carry more value, but it’s never actually told us
with any real accuracy how much water we have or what’s in it. Let’s consider the past decade
of water usage statistics from each of the G20 nations. Now, what these numbers do not tell you is that none of these countries
directly measures how much water they use. These are all estimates, and they’re based on outdated models that don’t consider the climate crisis, nor do they consider its impact on water. In 2015, Chennai,
India’s sixth-largest city, was hit with the worst floods
it had seen in a century. Today, its water reservoirs
are nearly dry. It took three years to get here, three years of subaverage rainfall. Now, that’s faster than most nations
tabulate their national water data, including the US. And although there were forecasts that predicted severe shortages
of water in Chennai, none of them could actually help us
pinpoint exactly when or where this was going to happen. This is a new type of water problem, because the rate at which
every aspect of our water cycle changes is accelerating. As a recent UN warning
this month revealed, we are now facing one new
climate emergency every single week. There are greater uncertainties
ahead for water quality. It’s rare in most countries
for most water bodies to be tested for more than a handful
of contaminants in a year. Instead of testing, we use
what’s called the “dilution model” to manage pollution. Now, imagine I took
an Olympic-sized swimming pool, I filled it with fresh water
and I added one drop of mercury. That would dilute down
to one part per billion mercury, which is well within what
the World Health Organization considers safe. But if there was any unforeseen drop
in how much water was available — less groundwater, less stream flow,
less water in the pool — less dilution would take place, and things would get more toxic. So this is how most countries
are managing pollution. They use this model to tell them
how much pollution is safe. And it has clear weaknesses, but it worked well enough
when we had abundant water and consistent weather patterns. Now that we don’t, we’re going to need
to invest and develop new data-collection strategies. But before we do that, we have to start
acting on the data we already have. This is a jet fuel fire. As many of you may be aware, jet fuel emissions play
an enormous role in climate change. What you might not be aware of
is that the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest
consumer of jet fuel. And when they consume jet fuel, they mandate the use
of the firefighting foam pictured here, which contains a class
of chemicals called PFAS. Nobody uses more of this foam
than the US Department of Defense, and every time it’s used, PFAS
finds its way into our water systems. Globally, militaries have been using
this foam since the 1970s. We know PFAS causes cancer, birth defects, and it’s now so pervasive
in the environment that we seem to find it in nearly
every living thing we test, including us. But so far, the US Department of Defense
has not been held accountable for PFAS contamination, nor has it been held liable. And although there’s an effort underway
to phase out these firefighting foams, they’re not embracing safer,
effective alternatives. They’re actually using
other PFAS molecules, which may, for all we know,
carry worse health consequences. So today, government accountability
is eroding to the point of elimination, and the risk of liability
from water pollution is vanishing. What types of incentives does this create
for investing in our water future? Over the past decade, the average
early stage global investment in early stage water technology companies has totaled less than
30 million dollars every year. That’s 0.12 percent of global
venture capital for early stage companies. And public spending is not going up
nearly fast enough. And a closer look at it reveals
that water is not a priority. In 2014, the US federal government
was spending 11 dollars per citizen on water infrastructure, versus 251 dollars on IT infrastructure. So when we don’t use the data we have, we don’t encourage investment
in new technologies, we don’t encourage more data collection and we certainly don’t encourage
investment in securing a water future. So are we doomed? Part of what I’m still learning is how to balance the doom
and the urgency with things we can do, because Greta Thunberg
and the Extinction Rebellion don’t want our hope —
they want us to act. So what can we do? It’s hard to imagine life
without a weather service, but before modern weather forecasting, we had no commercial air travel, it was common for ships to be lost at sea, and a single storm could produce
a food shortage. Once we had radio and telegraph networks, all that was necessary
to solve these problems was tracking the movement of storms. And that laid the foundation
for a global data collection effort, one that every household
and every business depends upon today. And this was as much the result of
coordinated and consistent data collection as it was the result of producing
a culture that saw greater value in openly assessing and sharing everything
that it could find out and discover about the risks we face. A global weather service for water
would help us forecast water shortages. It could help us implement rationing
well before reservoirs run dry. It could help us detect
contamination before it spreads. It could protect our supply chains, secure our food supplies, and, perhaps most importantly, it would enable
the precise estimation of risk necessary to ensure against it. We know we can do this because
we’ve already done it with weather. But it’s going to require resources. We need to encourage
greater investment in water. Investors, venture capitalists: a portion of your funds and portfolios
should be dedicated to water. Nothing is more valuable and, after all, businesses are going
to need to understand water risks in order to remain competitive
in the world we are entering. Aside from venture capital, there are also lots of promising
government programs that encourage economic development
through tax incentives. A new option in the US
that my company is using is called “opportunity zones.” They offer favorable tax treatment
for investing capital gains in designated distressed
and low-income areas. Now, these are areas that are also facing
staggering water risk, so this creates crucial incentives
to work directly with the communities who need help most. And if you’re not looking
to make this type of investment but you own land in the US, did you know that
you can leverage your land to conserve water quality permanently with a conservation easement? You can assign the perpetual right
to a local land trust to conserve your land and set specific water quality goals. And if you meet those goals, you can be rewarded with
a substantial tax discount every year. How many areas could
our global community protect through these and other programs? They’re powerful because they offer
the access to real property necessary to lay the foundation
for a global weather service for water. But this can only work if we use
these programs as they are intended and not as mere vehicles for tax evasion. When the conservation easement
was established, nobody could anticipate how ingrained
in environmental movements corporate polluters would become. And we’ve become accustomed to companies
talking about the climate crisis while doing nothing about it. This has undermined the legacy
and the impact of these programs, but it also makes them
ripe for reclamation. Why not use conservation easements
as they were intended, to set and reach
ambitious conservation goals? Why not create opportunities
in opportunity zones? Because fundamentally,
water security requires accountability. Accountability is not corporate polluters
sponsoring environmental groups and museums. Those are conflicts of interest. (Applause) Accountability is: making the risk of liability too expensive to continue polluting
and wasting our water. We can’t keep settling for words.
It’s time to act. And where better to start
than with our biggest polluters, particularly the US Department
of Defense, which is taxpayer-funded. Who and what are we protecting
when US soldiers, their families and the people who live near
US military bases abroad are all drinking toxic water? Global security can no longer remain
at odds with protecting our planet or our collective health. Our survival depends on it. Similarly, agriculture in most countries
depends on taxpayer-funded subsidies that are paid to farmers to secure
and stabilize food supplies. These incentives are
a crucial leverage point for us, because agriculture is responsible
for consuming 70 percent of all the water we use every year. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff are the two biggest sources
of water pollution. Let’s restructure these subsidies
to demand better water efficiency and less pollution. (Applause) Finally: we can’t expect progress if we’re unwilling to confront
the conflicts of interest that suppress science, that undermine innovation and that discourage transparency. It is in the public interest to measure and to share everything
we can learn and discover about the risks we face in water. Reality does not exist
until it’s measured. It doesn’t just take
technology to measure it. It takes our collective will. Thank you. (Applause)