Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Population Growth & Utilities

This Harvard Business School conference looked at the needs a few decades down the road, and the option of public/private partnerships was central.

An excerpt.

“By 2050, the Earth's population will likely exceed 9 billion people, up 30 percent from 6.9 billion today, according to projections from both the US Census Bureau and the United Nations. What's more, the population in the world's cities is expected to increase by 3 billion.

“With those sobering numbers in mind, several of the planet's top city planning and environmental business experts gathered at Harvard Business School earlier this month to discuss how to support the inevitable population growth. The conference—titled "Investing in Cities of the 21st Century: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Resources"—tackled three giant subjects: water, energy, and transportation. The conference was sponsored by Harvard Business School's Business and Environment Initiative and co-chaired by professors Rebecca M. Henderson, John D. Macomber, and Forest L. Reinhardt.

“Water planning gets short shrift

“In terms of urban planning, "water is often planned last and gets short shrift," said John Briscoe, a professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who participated in a panel a session dedicated to water. "Water is absolutely the poor cousin of the utilities."

“For starters, panelists talked about how the majority of the world's controlled water resources are dedicated to agriculture, leaving precious little for drinking, cooking, and bathing. (It's a subject complicated by climate change; wonky weather patterns have made it that much harder to predict rain and droughts.)

"The next big revolution is going to have to happen in food production," said Anand Shah, CEO of Piramal Water Private Limited, a for-profit start-up that provides clean drinking water to more than 64,000 rural villagers in India. The company uses a franchise model in which local entrepreneurs filter and sell water to members of their community. "In India, 87 percent of water is used for agriculture, and another 6 percent is for industry."

“The panelists also discussed the idea that relative to other utilities, water is very cheap in most cities, suggesting that charging more to city residents would make them realize that it is a valuable—and not infinite—resource. The possibility of profit would also encourage more participation from the private sector.

“This raised the question of how to persuade urban residents that price increases might be necessary to support the burgeoning population—and how to make them understand that public-private partnerships might make sense to expedite allocation.

"There has to be someone at the top who says, ‘This will be good for the city‘—and who will make sure it isn't corrupt," said Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala (HBS MBA 1987), chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation, one of the largest business conglomerates in the Philippines, a nation that recently started relying on public-private partnerships for water filtration and distribution.”