A whole village can starve without water and nothing will be done for decades. In Peepli Live, a politician gifts a family a worthless water pump, that occupies pride of place in the house and is merely a way to deflect attention. But when a business needs it to survive, you can be a hundred percent sure that the water problem will be tackled on a war footing. Till 2002, Coca Cola never mentioned water on its balance sheet. But with the adverse publicity it garnered from Kerala due to the amount of groundwater extracted for its plant, there has been a sea change, globally. Today Coke keeps an eagle eye on its water consumption across the world. There’s even a nifty term to describe it – ‘water neutral’. Meaning they will balance out the water they extract and the amount they sell. Just like a closed cycle. The realisation came from the fact that water was the single most important ingredient in their product line-up and finding fresh water sources were getting increasingly difficult – politically, morally, even at a higher price.
IBM needs superclean water to manufacture its microchips – water so clean, it isn’t safe to drink. Stripped of all minerals that can corrode the inside of machines, they are not recommended for humans – because our bodies need those minerals. IBM measured the amount of energy it takes to get water clean and by understanding the metrics involved in the process, they were able to save a phenomenal amount of water, and money. So much in fact, that IBM believes that the market for smart water, where an intricate system measures water usage and intervenes to provide the exact kind of water right along a system is already worth $15- $20 billion a year. And this is only going to grow in the years to come. So, a company that made its first billions with massive computers now believes that the market of the future is in providing something even more basic – fresh, clean water.
But once big business discovers that a freely available resource can become profitable, the easy days of water are at an end. Oil was worthless until automobiles came along and transformed the countries that had it in abundance. Then, megacities grew from endless deserts. And wars were fought in the name of liberation and the promise of democracy. Water markets will be more subtle. Because water can be recycled, desalinated and returned to its original form, we are going to see new models evolve for its exploitation. If you thought the mineral water market was huge, you ain’t seen nothing yet.