Tag Archives: resource use

Urban Water Justice in the Developing World

By Urmila Malvadkar* 

ImageIn the developing world, a lack of sufficient clean water is both a cause and consequence of poverty.   Informal settlements—housing up to 60%  of the population of some cities in the developing world– face unique obstacles to water access.  New infrastructure is difficult to install in dense, unplanned communities.  Many governments ignored needs of these communities in order to de-legitimize them and discourage rural-urban migration.  Further, residents are often rural migrants who stay for a few years  and do not advocate for investing in their community.

Where cities are unwilling or unable to provide water, residents can spend hours a day to purchase water from private vendors who charge 10 to 20 times more than tap water.   Some of these vendors in large cities such as Jakarta and Nairobi, have ties to organized crime, collude to cause artificially high prices, refuse to serve certain ethnicities,  and threaten utility workers with violence.

While some official policies– even pro-poor policies–can reduce access to water among the very poor, some programs focusing on improving service to the most indigent communities profoundly improve lives.

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Board Game for the Environment


by Yixiu Zheng*

It has been roughly seven months since my first blog post entitled ‘A Portable Environmental Economics Lab,’ which illustrated my idea on developing an educational board game about water pollution trading. This idea came from a concept of environment economics, property rights, and I wanted to develop a game that could help students understand how permit trading works. Continue reading

Energy Efficiency: Still Wasting in the Building

by Silvia Schmid


Last week’s conference “Building Energy Efficiency: Seeking Strategies that Work” offered the opportunity to discuss the many barriers to advancements in energy efficiency beyond current standards. The event was cohosted by the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL), the Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, and the Wharton Small Business Development Center, in partnership with the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub and sponsored by SAP. Speakers and panelists provided valuable insights on the current status of energy efficiency in buildings, addressing topics ranging from consumption measurement and increased transparency, to some of the psychological challenges inherent in adopting more energy efficient behavior. The common message throughout the day was how much remains to be done to make energy efficiency a mainstream priority.

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Supply Chain Compliance: Addressing the Elephant in the Room

by Derek Newberry*

If events like Apple’s Foxconn debacle teach us anything, it is that even reputable companies with strong supplier codes of conduct can face serious compliance issues where regulatory mechanisms are lacking.  I reflected on this recently when leafing through the summary report from last year’s Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) Conference “Greening the Supply Chain”.  While I enjoyed reading about the participants’ experiences in sustainability management, I was struck by the short shrift they paid to the all-important question of compliance, despite acknowledging that when it comes to producing tangible results, this really is the “elephant in the room”.

Indeed, ensuring that suppliers adhere to social and environmental criteria and comply with applicable legislation is a thorny problem in settings where the boundaries of corporate responsibility are unclear and enforcement can be costly and onerous.  This is doubly true in production chains characterized by numerous small suppliers and sparse governmental regulations, as is the case in much of the global agricultural sector.  How can we create regulatory mechanisms that enable these sustainability programs to look as good in practice as they do on paper? Continue reading

Water for Energy

by Iliana Sepulveda*

water mage - Copy

Water is essential for human life. It is also very useful for transportation, and agricultural and industrial production. Energy is also an essential ingredient. The relationship between these two resources has become an important topic for national security and for human development worldwide. With current available technology, vast quantities of water are required to produce energy (thermoelectric production as an example). Moreover, due to the geographical mismatch of water supply and demand, a significant amount of energy is needed to transport water where it is consumed, and to ensure that it has the proper quality for its different end uses (human consumption, agricultural uses, industrial production, and ecosystems protection). Continue reading

Peeking into Sustainable Paper and Packaging

by Silvia Schmid*


To some, the idea of a sustainable paper and packaging company can produce an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, perhaps conjuring up imagery of clear cutting and Styrofoam. Yet as much as we would like to think, do not print emails and traveling mugs are hardly going to replace the paper and packaging products that consumers want, firms demand, and on which the economy relies every day. Although this doesn’t mean that there is nothing being done. There are plenty of efforts to nudge consumer behavior toward the more sustainable, and, as attendees at a recent lecture at Wharton found out, the paper and packaging industry itself certainly considers issues of sustainability.

The Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) invited David Kiser, Ph.D., Vice President, Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability at International Paper (IP) and a member of the IGEL Corporate Advisory Board, to speak about the company’s sustainability initiatives. The lecture was cosponsored by the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Continue reading

Survey: Risk of Drought in the United States

by Sharon Muli*

Water covers 70.9% of the Earth’s surface. However, only 3% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and 68.7% of this freshwater is in glaciers, 30% is ground water, and 0.3% is surface water.  Humans depend on freshwater for a wide variety of uses, and this finite amount of water must be properly managed and allocated.

The chart below shows the uses of freshwater in the U.S. The chart highlights the nexus between water, food, energy –the focus of the upcoming Wharton IGEL Conference on March 20-21, 2013.  The two leading uses of freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. are thermoelectric power and irrigation, and any significant change in water use in these sectors will likely have an impact on the other categories.

US Freshwater Withdrawals

How do droughts affect our country?  As part of a group project for the Wharton course Risk Analysis and Environmental Management, Penn students Sharon Muli, Brent Ginsberg, Zenia Zelechiwsky, and Yaowen Ma are gathering data on how individuals perceive the risk of drought. The focus of this project is to investigate the likelihood of more droughts occurring in the United States in the future and to shed light on their associated impacts.

Please click here to take a survey to help us with our investigation.  The survey takes approximately 2-3 minutes to complete. Thank you for your participation.

*Sharon Muli is enrolled in Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program with a concentration in Environmental Policy.  She has a background in Biology, is particularly interested in water issues and corporate sustainability, and currently works as a Product Sustainability Co-op at Johnson & Johnson.

Water: Emerging Risks and Opportunities Summit

by Samantha Guidon*

On February 8, 2013, with an imminent Winter Storm Nemo on the horizon, over 250 industry leaders and key players in the water sector came together at Goldman Sachs in New York City to begin the dialogue on addressing water risks throughout the country. Students from the Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania joined the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (Wharton IGEL) team in attending this event to gain key perspectives from leaders in the water sector. Entitled “Water: Emerging Risks and Opportunities Summit,” the conference identified areas in need of improvement and discussed opportunities from various points of view. A welcoming address from David Solomon, Co-Head of the Investment Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, established the overall goals of bringing together capital, technology, and policy in order to determine best management practices within the water sector. Continue reading

U.S. Competitiveness Project – A Need for Systems Thinking

(Post by Andrew McKeon, Founder of BusinessClimate and writer for the BusinessClimate blog, from which this post is re-posted. See the bottom of athe post for Mr. McKeon’s bio.)

The current state of U.S. competitiveness is in a sense not the problem.  It is a symptom of a larger systemic problem.  Management is learning that the threats to U.S. competitiveness are multi-faceted, interrelated, and long term and how the strategies to address them must be multidimensional, holistic, and sustained.  As they press business leaders to stop actions that simply benefit their own firms while collectively weakening America’s business environment, Porter and Rivkin are describing the real problem.  Fixing U.S. competitiveness will require a broader systems perspective – much broader and more holistic than American management has practiced in the last 40 years.

For decades U.S. management has had very little appreciation for seeing businesses from a systems perspective.  Hugely popular management approaches like MBO (management by objective) created “the whole is equal to the sum of the parts” and “manage what you measure and measure what you manage” mind-sets.  Consequently there was little attention paid to the interconnections and interdependencies within a business operation or between businesses – these weren’t seen as important in building great enterprises or fostering strong economies.  Harvard’s U.S. Competitiveness Project needs to change that thinking and hopefully will.

Yet, if we are to really address U.S. competitiveness we must stop looking at issues, businesses and markets as isolated, and instead understand that the future of U.S. competitiveness lies in how well we address the systems issues facing the global economy and the planet over the next 20-40 years.

The risks are clear.  Huge increases in global demand for raw materials, industrial and agricultural commodities, energy and water, will put greater claims on resources, stress supply chains, apply enormous pressure to profit margins and deepen the planet’s most serious environmental challenges.  Yet, these same risks point to tremendous opportunities.  An estimated three billion new additions to the world’s middle-class before mid-century will improve more people’s lives than ever in history and triple the size of the global economy.  For companies to turn these risks into opportunities they must take advantage of growth while mitigating resource disruptions and global environmental degradation.  Clearly, business as usual will not get the job done.  The fate of U.S. competiveness in the years and decades ahead will be determined by how effectively we mitigate the most urgent risks and develop the greatest opportunities that will drive the global economy and the planet.  Sustainability must be the organizing principle of U.S. competitiveness if we are to lead in the 21st century.

Many ask about the meaning of the term sustainability.  Here sustainability refers to a process and a way of thinking which begins with an appreciation for businesses as systems, embedded in larger systems such as markets, and all part of even larger systems of economies.  Ultimately, the earth itself is a system made up of highly interconnected and interdependent groupings of natural and man-made systems, one of the most powerful being the global economy.  In a well organized system, every subsystem supports and aligns with the aim, operations and workings of the overall system.  Lack of alignment leads to sub-optimization, decay and the potential destruction of the system.  Simply put, sustainability is about getting the alignment right between how the global economy works and how the planet works.  To the extent business operations support that alignment, business is sustainable and will prosper; to the extent business operations are out of alignment, business is unsustainable and will deteriorate. The key to U.S. competiveness lies in how well we plan and organize for that alignment.

Next month in New York City there will be a major gathering of C-level business leaders, entrepreneurs, NGO activists, and at least two former Heads-of-State (Costa Rica’s Jose Maria Figueres and U.S. President Bill Clinton) to discuss U.S. competitiveness in the context of the risks and opportunities of the 21st century.  The event – The Sustainable Operations Summit – is not unique – it takes place the very same week as Fortune Brainstorm Green, a CEO-level event in San Diego focused on the newest ideas shaping the future of business.  Both events and others like them signal an important trend in the business community – putting sustainability at the center of the discussion around risk, opportunity and U.S. competitiveness in the coming years.

At The Sustainable Operations Summit I will be moderating a panel that was originally entitled “Environmental Strategy and Business Strategy.”  I spoke with the conference organizer about changing the name – replacing “and” with “as” – and he agreed.  The “Environmental Strategy as Business Strategy” panel will discuss how new business strategies for American competitiveness in the 21st century must not make environmental strategy vestigial, or incorporate it because it is noble or even socially responsible.  Instead environmental strategy must be seen as the key to global competiveness. Understanding natural systems is much more than simply tell us what we’re doing wrong to the planet – it can provide unique insights into how to build resilient businesses systems.  As detailed in the book Profit Beyond Measure by H. Thomas Johnson and Andres Bröms, natural system characteristics such as self-organization, interdependence and diversity have been used to build some of the most efficient and robust manufacturing systems of the 20th century.  In the 21st century only by understanding these principles will companies be able to address the daunting challenges and unprecedented opportunities that are unfolding.

One of the panelists on “Environmental Strategy as Business Strategy” will be Col. Mark Mykleby (U.S.M.C. Ret.).  After serving in combat in Iraq and developing strategy for U.S. Special Ops Command, Colonel Mykleby served as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he developed a new National Strategic Narrative for the United States in the 21st Century.  The U.S. has been without a national strategy since the end of the Cold War when the strategy of “containment” of global communism became obsolete.  Col. Mykleby’s narrative replaces “containment” with “sustainment”, making sustainability a core principle for America’s next 50 years.  The narrative is not just about green energy and resource efficiency, although these are important components.  It is about something larger – a view of America’s challenges and opportunities from a systems perspective.  There are powerful and influential people both inside and outside Washington who are quietly working to see this strategy transformed into policy in the next administration, which would go far to mainstream the idea that U.S. competitiveness in this century as a matter of national policy must and will be driven by sustainability and systems thinking.

Andrew McKeon is founder of BusinessClimate, a provider of consulting services that help clients increase their global competitiveness and profitability through sustainable business strategies, and the host of the annual conference on sustainability and global competitiveness.  Clients include PwC, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Intel, and Johnson Controls.  Andrew holds an MS in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA, both from Columbia University.  His writings have appeared in such publications as Greenbiz, Reuters and strategy+business magazine.  He has been invited to speak at NASA, the United Nations, the Deming Biennial, PICMET, and the Agrion Energy Conference.  He is an advisor to the UN-GAID and is a member of the Board of Directors of TransitCenter. Andrew maintains a blog at www.businessclimate2012.blogspot.com.

Filling the Freshwater Gap with Desalinated Water

 The Author : Jaivime Evaristo is pursuing Environmental Biology, with a focus in biogeochemistry, in the Master of Environmental Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a B.S. in Biology from the University of the Philippines, with a thesis on a preliminary study that would lead to the identification of potential alternative uses of an environmentally hazardous by-product in industrial food production.


It is not uncommon for a narrative aimed at building an argument for water conservation to begin by stating that the planet’s freshwater resources comprise just a measly 2.5% of all the earth’s water; 97.5% being ocean or seawater.  Hence, the need – in fact, even a moral responsibility – to conserve freshwater resources to meet not only the needs of some 7 billion people worldwide but also of future generations.

The importance and urgency of water conservation could not be overstated.

Even before we begin to consider some alternative and novel means of increasing potable water production, it is important to stress that conservation of existing freshwater resources can assuage the perils of a looming global water problem. For example, it may be surprising to many people to learn that “about 95% of the water entering our homes goes down the drain or that over a quarter of all the clean, drinkable water we use in our home is used to flush the toilets”. When we place these facts into perspective, there is no doubt that there is a lot we consumers can do to conserve water and help address the water problem.

As with other major world issues – fossil and renewable energy resources, for example – that define some of today’s tectonic shifts in geopolitical makeup and economic balance, the water issue will just as likely be an indispensable component of world security and stability agenda. Already, in countries along the Jordan River basin like Israel, Syria, and of course Jordan, it is being argued that regional stability will likely be influenced more by future water resource issues than by centuries-old ideologies. The same is true for countries like Egypt and Sudan that have placed the rights issue to the River Nile as a matter of national security. Further east, parts of India and China are facing serious dangers as receding Himalayan glaciers pose threat of an impending water shortage for hundreds of millions of people.

One might think that a global policy issue of this magnitude and importance would elicit a multi-faceted approach to close the gap. Unfortunately, policy makers and institutions engaged in water conservation efforts have, by and large, placed a skewed emphasis on and around the conservation of fundamentally limited freshwater resources only. So much so that public awareness to other alternatives like seawater desalination technologies is not only scanty but also, at times, prejudiced.

According to the Ecological Management Foundation, a public benefit charity in the water sector, “the common view, still very much engrained in people’s minds, is that desalination is too expensive, too fossil energy intensive, technically complicated and environmentally unfriendly. In the NGO world it is regarded as a technical fix and hence inappropriate”.  What is often missed out is the recognition of the huge technological improvements in desalination technology over the last few years; most if not all of which were due to the concerted efforts between technology providers and public sector stakeholders.

“Too expensive”

Recent design improvements in seawater desalination have reduced the cost prices quite considerably such that they are now projected to cross the marginal cost prices of conventional water procurement and treatment, thereby, increasing the economic viability of desalination in the next few years.

In an age where urbanization is expected to grow ever more rapidly in the next two decades, expanding to almost 5 billion by 2030; and the fact that many of the world’s largest cities are built along seacoasts, access to potable water for domestic and industrial use is a matter not only of urban living sustainability but also of medium-term security and stability. Any future gaps in water supply as a result of rapid population growth in urban coastal areas could be narrowed by a cost-competitive and sustainable utilization of innovative desalination technologies.

“Too fossil energy intensive”

One traditional drawback of seawater desalination is the huge energy requirement, which is being met mostly by fossil fuels (e.g. oil and natural gas). Desalination plants ran on hydrocarbon fuels continue to pose both cost and environmental concerns. While fuel cost might be less of a concern to oil-rich countries in the Arabian Gulf – which the USGS estimates to use about 70% of worldwide desalination capacity – than elsewhere in the world, the rising prices of crude oil meant that a portion of the potential revenues of these oil-exporting countries were being flushed out of the drain for use in seawater desalination rather than for sovereign wealth generation.

There have been some recent improvements in this area, however. For example, in Algeria, GEbuilt what has become as Africa’s largest seawater desalination plant, which uses an advanced seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) membrane process that requires less energy consumption compared to other alternatives like thermal desalination processes.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis in Desalination Plant - Photo by James Grellier

Indeed, the intersection between addressing environmental issues and pursuing corporate shareholder interests does provide ample opportunities for technological innovation. On what might be considered as a groundbreaking development in 2010, both in technological and in emerging collaborative terms, IBM and the Saudi research group, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), announced the opening of a solar-powered desalination plant with a capacity to produce about 30,000 cubic meters of potable water per day. The collaboration between IBM and the Saudi government resulted in two major technological breakthroughs: in addition to being powered by ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic (UHCPV) cells instead of fossil fuels, improvements in nanomembrane technology meant less electricity requirement than average high-pressure RO systems.

“Environmentally unfriendly”

Seawater desalination, just like any other industrial facility, carries with it some inherent environmental drawbacks. Concomitant to the use of fossil fuel as an energy source that drives desalination plants is the concern for greenhouse gas emissions. However, as exemplified by the IBM-Saudi partnership above, a change in energy source that powers tomorrow’s desalination plants could very well eliminate this environmental downside in the near future.

Another environmental concern that comes with desalination technology is the high salt concentration of the brine discharge that is normally dumped back into the sea. Increased seawater salinity caused by brine discharge from desalination plants could not only pose threat to marine life and ecosystem balance but could also result in a positive feedback loop with respect to feedwater sustainability. That is, brine or concentrate discharge, which has higher salinity than the feedwater, increases the surrounding seawater salinity and therefore the subsequent feedwater intake; thereby, amplifying the increased seawater salinity issue caused by brine discharge disposal in a positively reinforcing manner. Moreover, it is important to stress that as feedwater salinity increases so does the energy requirement in desalinating seawater.

The effects of increasing salinity caused by brine discharge from desalination plants, however, could vary greatly from one site to another. Physico-chemical and geomorphological factors should be considered in the assessment of its environmental impacts to marine ecosystems. For example, countries in the Arabian Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait) could be facing heightened environmental threats caused by brine discharge – due to presumably limited diffusion and mixing of seawater in the Gulf – than in other coastal areas where turbulence and ocean circulation patterns facilitate faster diffusion and mixing of the discharge back into the ocean. Routine and extensive water sampling as well as standard EPA dilution models for effluent discharge could help in narrowing any ecological management gap caused by brine discharge disposal.

In a best-case scenario that future desalination plants are powered by renewable energy resources like solar or wind, still the threat of increased salinity as well as alkalinity to marine ecosystems are likely to persist. The cautious optimists, however, may argue that given the huge technological strides achieved in recent years in overcoming the traditional hurdles of desalination, it is just a matter of time before technology providers, public/private sector stakeholders, and the academia are able to close in on this gap.

The case for desalinated water, as it turns out, is one that policy makers need to consider more seriously. That is not to say, however, that conservation efforts in freshwater resource management i.e. groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams, etc. have to take the back seat. Quite to the contrary, the same conservation and consumer education programs must continue and should be intensified even further as a matter of strategic effort priority.

Nevertheless, given the global scale of climate change impacts, including changing rainfall patterns around which conventional water procurement and treatment through dams and reservoirs are largely anchored, it may prove pragmatically prudent to add a little bit more emphasis on seawater desalination in the entire water agenda. After all, with dismal prospects as big in magnitude as a global water crisis in the next few decades, the world needs all the help it can get from every resource and technology possible.


The views of this article are those of the author and should not be taken as representative of the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton or the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership.