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Targeting Technology to Benefit People and Planet: A World Bank Perspective on Water Innovation

Urban Drinking Water Innovation Series

By Jennifer Sara, Director, Water Global Practice, World Bank Group

What if satellites could track water contamination from space? What if AI could predict future vulnerability to drinking water scarcity — equipping decision makers with the tools and insights to act before a city-wide shortage? What if a new toilet was invented that could really close the loop and offer affordable, decentralized sanitation for the urban poor?

At the World Bank Group (WBG), we see technology as crucial in meeting the water-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and achieving a healthy and water-secure world for all. And tackling the water and sanitation crisis is one of the most urgent issues for the global community to address.

It is a crisis of too much, too polluted and too little. Too much because the devastating impacts of floods, exacerbated by climate change, is hitting poor people first. Too polluted because so much wastewater does not get collected or treated. And too little because across the world today 2.1 billion people lack reliable access to safely managed drinking water services. Meanwhile, 4.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation services.

While the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is seductive — and the role of technology and digital solutions promising — all too many people across the world are still stuck in the Second or Third. The WBG works in some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world and this presents some unique challenges for us to grapple with.

Chief among these is the important step of evaluation to validate solutions in real-life conditions and provide support to help technology businesses iron out risks and deployment glitches. Without this, too many innovative products or services will not reach the scale needed for transformation. This change will require a shift in culture for many water utilities, and through technical assistance and financing the WBG is well positioned to assist our client utilities to assess and mitigate the risk profiles associated with new technologies.

As many advanced utilities regularly test and adopt innovation, the WBG is gearing up to play a significant role in promoting the adoption of new technologies by utilities in developing countries. The WBG has recently convened two gatherings bringing together African water utilities with a number of promising start-ups to assess and adopt key technologies with proven benefits. The WBG is now considering expanding this model to Asia and Latin America.

The WBG is also contributing to the global water innovation ecosystem by working with partners worldwide to assess what deployment of technologies across the water use value chain could mean for developing countries that are willing to leapfrog to the concept of a ‘smart utility’.

We hope that our emerging work in this area will enable developing countries to accelerate the expansion of water and sanitation infrastructure and deliver the water-related goals of the SDGs by 2030.

Jennifer Sara is the Director for the World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice. She joined the Bank as a Research Analyst for the Water and Sanitation Program in 1989, and has spent 13 years in the field, including assignments in Brazil, Bolivia and Vietnam. Other positions she has held include Lead Infrastructure Specialist, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist, Africa. Jennifer is a member of the Evaluation Committee for Imagine H2O’s Urban Drinking Water Challenge 2018.