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Opinion: We are swimming in opportunities for our most important resource, but will we miss the boat?

Water has a good case for feeling left out.
We don’t have a plan for the water we could be wisely using. Done appropriately, the opportunities are vast.

We can take for granted the resources around us. Water, for instance, has a good case for feeling left out.

As we agonize over how and whether we use our fossil fuels, while we explore the viabilities of solar and wind and contemplate how best to harvest our minerals in the ground, we are sitting on – actually, we are staged astride – arguably the most strategically important resource of all. 

As a new report outlines, we don’t have a plan for the water we could be wisely using. Done appropriately, the opportunities are vast. The principal question is how.

Invest Vancouver, the region’s economic development organization, has been taking on the task in recent months of examining the gaps in the operation of business sectors with an aim of prescribing achievable change. 

It’s an open question on whether the right people are listening, even if they speak the language they’re hearing, but at least we are getting a clearer handle on the issues to address.

In the case of water tech, the imperative for providing solutions arises from the difficulty in meeting such challenges as climate change, the development of a more circular economy and the entrenchment of basic human health regulations through treatment and management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. 

While we can’t be too complacent about the water, water everywhere, we happen to live in a region of adequate, renewable high-quality water from three substantial watersheds. Drought is not coming our way. Our aquifers are not endangered by demand. And our supply is safe. The same can’t be said for many parts of the world, where water might well become a weapon this century in conflict.

The report says it turns out we are in a great position here “to become a significant global supplier of water technology solutions.” 

But . . .

There is always a “but” when it comes to local economic development. 

The sector features nearly five dozen export-oriented water tech firms, supported by an array of institutions. Interestingly, there is less capital formation and investment than might be expected, in part because these firms generate revenue very early and can turn to commercial bank loans if they need money. There are, too, government grants and incentives.

As it has done in earlier studies, Invest Vancouver is encouraging these firms to find ways to “cluster” and define an identity that would propel their fortunes. Particularly important would be a greater showcase of their technologies closer to home, a symptom many sectors find locally. It would also help if there were one government ministry with responsibility; it seems public policy responsibilities for water are as ubiquitous as the resource itself.

Underlying these challenges are what Invest Vancouver calls the local “usual suspects,” meaning the high living costs, difficulty in attracting talent, traffic congestion that hinders business-to-business dealings, the shortage of industrial land, and reluctant governments to be early customers if firms haven’t secured plenty of non-local contracts.

The report calls for deeper connections among firms, collaborative research and a more aggressive promotion of the regional industry. It points to a WaterCampus in The Netherlands as a model it could emulate. One of its more novel ideas is a BC Clean Tech Concierge program that would serve as a problem-solver, sectoral-liaisor and government-whisperer. And, yes, somehow the industry has to be helped with a program to get our public utilities to adopt the innovative work sooner.

In all, “the water tech sector is an unseen asset that, if supported, could become an economic driver for the region.” This would not be a small accomplishment, but it requires not taking for granted what we have.


Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.