The world’s water supply will continue to dry up in the next decade, but a growing number of companies see opportunity in that half-empty glass. Last year, General Electric dropped $1.1 billion to buy Ionics, a global desalination and water-recycling operation, and made it the centerpiece of its new “Ecomagination” program. GE’s conscience is already paying dividends: It recently won a $300 million contract to build a desalination plant in Algeria, where the taps are now open only every third day (by 2007 it will produce 53 million gallons daily). And in 2005, the water division earned $2 billion, a figure expected to hit $10 billion by 2016, making it GE’s fastest-growing division. Of course, there’s cause for concern whenever the private sector moves in on a public utility: Water rates spiked 35% after a private consortium took over the waterworks in Cochabamba, Bolivia, leading to rioting and, less than a year later, a canceled contract. And then there’s Enron. “We can’t discount corporate social responsibility,” says UN sustainable-development officer Marcia Brewster. “It’s just trying to figure out how much to trust them. Ideally, we’d like to see people use water better and conserve it.”
- The private sector manages water for 7% of the world’s population, a number predicted to double by 2016.
- Privatized water is estimated to be a $200 billion-a-year business. The World Bank believes it could hit $1 trillion by 2021.
- In 2004, Israel closed a 20-year deal with Turkey to swap guns for water.
- In Bangkok, Manila, and New Delhi (even the American West), water theft is common.
- Half a trillion gallons of water are wasted each year during oil extraction.
- 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water.