The Water Bearers: Exclusive Interview with Xylem Watermark and Mercy Corps

In his message for World Water Day 2014, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognized the importance of access to clean water in "our efforts to build stable societies and lives of dignity for all," specifically calling for "innovative strategies." Here's one partnership that has been successful in answering that call 

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- Since 2008, the partnership between Xylem Watermark, the corporate citizenship and social investment program of Xylem (NYSE:XYL), a global water technology provider, and Mercy Corps, an international aid and development agency, has responded to 22 water-related disasters. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, for example, they helped provide more than 5 million liters of clean water to families in need. In Japan, they helped restore the livelihoods of hundreds of fish-farming families. During the drought in the Horn of Africa, they helped provide over 2 million liters of clean water.

In 2011 and 2012, they supported disaster risk reduction (DRR) projects in China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal and Tajikistan. Proactively preparing for water-related emergencies before they happen, these DRR initiatives have included managing floodplains, engineering barriers along river banks and building bridges to evacuate frequently flooded areas.

I had a chance to ask Michael Fields, Director of Corporate Citizenship at Xylem, and Michael Bowers, Senior Director of Strategic Response and Global Emergencies at Mercy Corps, a few questions about this important partnership, the effect of climate change on water-related disasters, the challenges of working in conflict zones and what makes them optimistic about the future.

Mercy Corps has been working to increase access to safe water around the world for many years. What kind of unique expertise does Xylem bring to these water-based initiatives?

Michael Bowers: As a leading provider of water treatment and transport technology, Xylem brings a wide range of high-quality products to Mercy Corps’ initiatives, as well as a commitment to sustainable solutions. Through our partnership, we’ve been able to access proven product systems, such as dewatering pumps and filtration systems, in order to respond promptly after devastating floods. We also have had the opportunity to pilot new Xylem products, such as a stepping pump designed specifically for the 1.5 billion subsistence farmers worldwide who need proper irrigation equipment, including water pumps, to maximize their yield-to-land ratios.

In their 2009 “Water and Disaster“ report, the United Nations defined “water-related disaster” as “floods, droughts, over-extraction of groundwater, pollution of rivers, lakes and wetlands, loss of water-based ecosystem services, landslides, debris flows, storm surges, and tsunamis.” Do you agree with this definition? Is there anything you would change or add?

Michael Bowers: These are all appropriate characteristics of water-related disasters. What we would add is that water drives so much of human life, productivity and geopolitical interactions, that a simple definition cannot always do justice to the importance of sustainable and resilient solutions to clean-water provision. In our view, what matters more than definition is the impact on people. Any circumstance—be it natural or man-made—that limits people’s access to clean, potable water and proper sanitation is a water-related disaster that requires urgent attention.

Xylem Watermark and Mercy Corp have responded to 22 water-related emergencies since 2008, including the Haiti earthquake, the drought in the Horn of Africa and the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan. Which crisis represents the greatest challenge and can you describe your work there?

Michael Bowers: Every emergency has its own unique challenges, but the greatest water-related challenge we’ve faced to date is the Syrian refugee crisis we’re dealing with right now in Jordan. The third-driest country in the world, Jordan already struggles to provide enough water for all its citizens – and now the population has increased with an additional 600,000 Syrian refugees. In a new report, Mercy Corps details the growing pressures that refugees place on Jordan’s fragile water system—from rapidly declining supplies to increased tensions between host communities and refugees. We are working both to help increase supply—for example by digging new wells in the Zaatari refugee camp, a project partially funded by Xylem Watermark‘s Emergency Response Fund—and to reduce water leakage through the aging pipes. We are also focused on targeted solutions to ease tensions and increase conservation. Given the scale of the crisis, the shifting political dynamics and the nature of the regional water scarcity, the Syria refugee crisis is definitely one of the most complex water-related challenges we’ve faced.

What kinds of opportunities can be found in water crises and how can such opportunities be exploited?

Michael Fields: Xylem, like many organizations around the world, envisions a time when water scarcity is no longer the crisis it is today; when water-related disasters can be fully mitigated by risk reduction efforts. But given the realities of our world, Xylem and Mercy Corps strive to address these environmental circumstances, using the extreme nature of water-related disasters to push the boundaries of innovation and capacity building in communities so we can more quickly achieve our goals. Our Disaster Risk Reduction Initiative (DRRI)-Water is one such example of seeking out, among the most vulnerable communities, sustainable, discrete projects that will inevitably be tested by the natural forces of their regions.

Your partnership has supported specific, innovative disaster risk reduction (DRR) projects in China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal and Tajikistan. Can you describe one of these innovations? Which of these projects do you consider to be the greatest success?

Michael Bowers: The DRRI-Water projects were all very different, from preparing for disasters (evacuation planning and simulation) to improving household water sanitation and community water access. Each was successful in its own way because the implementing teams worked directly with the local communities to identify their most pressing needs and engaged them in joint problem-solving. One project in Kanchanpur, Nepal, involved a innovative solution for filtering arsenic from water using commonly found items—buckets, rusty nails, sand and river stones. The solution was quickly adopted by the people in these communities. They found that not only did the homemade filters eliminate arsenic, but also they removed a non-harmful but bad-tasting iron contaminant, improving the taste of both the drinking water and the food cooked with that water.

Are we entering the era of "hydrological warfare" in which we will see more water conflict? Or will there be more water cooperation between states as well as non-state actors?

Michael Bowers: The circumstances are likely to play out differently depending on how communities have dealt with resource shortages in the past, and whether leaders are willing to collaborate to find solutions that meet the needs of each party. We are optimistic that with the right incentives and training, communities can learn to peacefully resolve contentious issues, including the allocation of scarce resources like water, but it will take time, a willingness to learn new ways of solving conflict and the development of technology that allows neighboring states and countries to amicably share water resources and expertise.

What are some of the political, technical or strategic challenges posed by working in conflict zones?

Michael Bowers: Logistics differ depending on whether we’re responding to a natural disaster or working in a conflict zone. Generally conflict zones present more challenges because the dynamics are constantly shifting. For example, the source of water may not be in a safe and secure area, so we may have to negotiate with the people who are controlling that area in order to truck water through or get supplies in.

Are governments and intergovernmental organizations like the UN doing enough in terms of supporting increased cooperation and avoiding future water conflict? What could they be doing better?

Michael Fields: As is the case with any social or humanitarian challenge, there always feels as if there is more we all could do make progress; one more project, one more collaboration, one more study. You start to think about what else we could be doing and the ideas are infinite. Interventions are possible everywhere from agriculture and irrigation to sanitation and hygiene to women’s’ rights, water treatment, wildlife, animal preservation and foreign policy –this list could go on. Organizations like the UN are trying to address all of these challenges, and more, simultaneously. Mercy Corps is currently working with UNICEF in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to provide greater access to clean water to the victims of the Syrian war, so that their presence in Jordan doesn’t overwhelm already stressed resources for northern Jordan. We have built two deep-water wells that at full working capacity can provide enough water to meet the daily needs of approximately 88,000 Syrian refugees—about 73 percent of the total population of the camp. We are not only providing clean water by relieving water stress throughout communities in northern Jordan, but we are also helping to mitigate underlying tensions of human displacement, ethnic conflict and war. When we, the UN and other nongovernmental organizations can do more of this kind of work—collaboration that addresses not just one challenge, but many, within the water crisis—we can be better prepared for future water conflicts. No one knows this kind of challenge better than Mercy Corps, and it is why we place such high value on their five-year partnership with Xylem Watermark; so we can continue to not just provide water where it’s needed most, but protect against future scarcity as well.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about water? What can be done to change that misconception?

Michael Fields: Misconceptions are often regional. In the U.S. and other developed economies, many people think that water is an endless and inexpensive resource. The fact that our water infrastructure is largely underground allows us to forget how lucky we are to have such consistent access to what is, in reality, a rare natural resource. Most Americans pay artificially low rates for their water without even realizing it. As a result, water utilities, are starved of the investment they need to enact long-term plans to modernize pipes and treatment systems. Such rates and practices obscure the true value of water, which in turn discourages conservation and wastes energy and ultimately, money. What we believe to be the best long-term solution is implementing a sustainable business model—simply paying what water actually costs. Xylem’s Value of Water Index shows that Americans are, in fact, willing to pay a little more for water each month so that we can properly maintain and grow our water infrastructure.

Looking at populations outside the United States or developed economies—in places like rural India and Cambodia, Kenya or Brazil’s Semiarid—the misconceptions change. Water is precious. The lack of access is clear and the struggle to secure it is great. Girls forfeit school to walk sometimes for miles to collect clean water for their families. Families and communities live without improved sanitation as there is no system for toilets or waste treatment. Instead, many people believe that if the water looks clear, or if an animal is drinking from a water source, then it must be safe. These populations don’t necessarily understand that the germs, bacteria and toxins can be present without a visible cue.

In either case, education is one of the strongest combatants to misconceptions about water. Through our Value of Water Index, we are gathering data and insights that will help us change the way Americans’ view their water supplies. Through Xylem Watermark and our nonprofit partnerships, we are providing water, sanitation and hygiene education to vulnerable communities that will change behaviors, save lives and help them understand how they can survive and thrive despite their water scarcity.

What can sustainability- and corporate responsibility-minded companies do to protect water security in the communities in which they work?

Michael Fields: In places like Jordan, where tensions are high and international conflicts spill over, collaboration with local governments and international NGOs can be among the most successful tactics. Outside of conflict zones, security typically includes protecting water from toxicity and conservation to ensure long-term availability of the source. At the most basic level, companies simply help raise awareness for these risks. They can educate their communities and rally their employees to help keep these resources safe. Through Xylem Watermark, we partner with the World Water Monitoring Challenge (WWMC) to do just this. Xylem employees volunteer in primary schools around the world to teach young students about water security, and then accompany them to water sources in their communities, providing testing kits from WWMC. With a simple classroom lesson in combination with a field trip, we can start to address water risks from town to town across Xylem’s footprint. Through Xylem’s Global Volunteer Trips, we also send groups of employees into the field throughout the year to help construct and support crucial water access projects in some of our most vulnerable communities—in India, the Philippines and China—among others.

At Xylem, we have adopted the use of the Global Water Tool to ensure we aren’t taxing water resources in water-stressed areas, and we are making adjustments based on what we learn. We are also adapting our products and services to better meet the needs of the communities where we live, work, and operate. Our Godwin brand increasingly focuses on developing dewatering products, critical as climate change increases the intensity of water-related disasters around the world. In the United States, our Value of Water Index has helped raise awareness around the need for critical water infrastructure updates before water issues become a bigger, and we are working aggressively to enter emerging markets to help strengthen clean water access and protect against future increases in water scarcity.

Has climate change impacted or will it impact the frequency or nature of water-related disasters?

Michael Fields: There’s no question that climate change is impacting natural disasters, but it’s doing it in an ambiguous way. Over the last decade or so, the number of natural disasters has increased and then decreased. And despite tragic losses in recent disasters, the number of deaths has generally decreased year over year for many years in a row. (This can be due to many things: improved and strengthened infrastructure; better early warning systems; and overall improvements to the provision of emergency medical care. It should come as no surprise that many of these are the same DRR tactics that we are implementing in partnership with Mercy Corps.) But what is clear, is that climate change is increasing the frequency of the strongest disasters we face.

Understanding this, Xylem and Xylem Watermark are working to ensure we are prepared. With nonprofit partners like Mercy Corps, we will continue investing in DRR to help mitigate the effects of these emergencies. We are also supporting urban resilience—a city’s ability to anticipate, prepare for and recover from natural disasters—by compiling lessons learned from our own work managing flood conditions and water scarcity around the world. And through the ongoing development of existing and new products, we will continue to produce technology that can address and withstand what Mother Nature brings. For example, leading up to Hurricane Sandy in the United States, Xylem brought in approximately 27 tractor trailer loads of large dewatering Godwin pumps to areas from Virginia to New England to ensure that we would be ready as soon as the region needed us.

In terms of water security and sanitation, what keeps you up at night—and what makes you optimistic about the future?

Michael Bowers: At Mercy Corps we are already planning how we will respond to emergencies of the future. We anticipate that extreme weather events are going to become more frequent and more deadly. There will be more extreme droughts, more extreme flooding. Human beings are extraordinarily resilient, but the impacts are going to be far-reaching, and we know that the poor are going to be hardest hit. We need to find ways to help people adapt to these rapid changes, and ensure that they have safety nets in place, such as insurance and savings, so that they can more easily recover from unexpected shocks.

Michael Fields: At Xylem, we see an urgent need for the modernization of global water infrastructure. Rapid urbanization, water scarcity, combined with aging and crumbling water infrastructure makes this is an area of great concern for us. Millions of dollars are wasted when water infrastructure becomes unusable or renders substandard service because of disrepair. In the United States, water leaks alone cost taxpayers $2.6 billion every year. In cities across the developing world, only a fraction of the municipal water supply actually reaches the consumer. The rest is called “unaccounted-for water” and is lost to leakages caused by damaged pipes and theft. In a world where we already have scarce freshwater resources, this should not be happening. But we are optimistic. Because we are able to identify these challenges, it also means we can help to solve them. Whether through our products, people, or partnerships—like that with Mercy Corps—we know there is a way to address these critical issues, in our backyard in the United States, and in every community where we operate around the world.

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About Xylem

Xylem (NYSE:XYL) is a leading global water technology provider, enabling customers to transport, treat, test and efficiently use water in public utility, residential and commercial building services, industrial and agricultural settings. The company does business in more than 150 countries through a number of market-leading product brands, and its people bring broad applications expertise with a strong focus on finding local solutions to the world’s most challenging water and wastewater problems. Xylem is headquartered in Rye Brook, N.Y., with 2013 revenues of $3.8 billion and more than 12,500 employees worldwide. Xylem was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for the last two years for advancing sustainable business practices and solutions worldwide. The name Xylem is derived from classical Greek and is the tissue that transports water in plants, highlighting the engineering efficiency of our water-centric business by linking it with the best water transportation of all -- that which occurs in nature. For more information, please visit http://www.xyleminc.com.

About Mercy Corps

Since 1979, Mercy Corps has been helping people in the world’s toughest places survive the crises they confront and turn them into opportunities to thrive. The Mercy Corps staff—93 percent of whom are local—work in failing states like Somalia and Zimbabwe. Conflict zones like Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq. And countries that have endured natural disasters like Indonesia, Pakistan and Haiti. Mercy Corps responds immediately to emergencies, staying to build food security, resilience and new economic opportunities as communities rebuild. For more information, please visit http://www.mercycorps.org.

image credit: Adam Bacher for Mercy Corps, Haiti

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