This article was originally published in the Ontario Business Report.

In a little more than a decade, the United Nations says two-thirds of the world’s population, or about 5.5 billion, will face moderate or severe water shortages. And without smarter ways of using existing supplies the situation could get worse. Even now, limited water resources are threatening economic growth in the developed world.

Solutions, however, may emerge in Ontario from an unprecedented public-private-university investment that will make the region the international research centre for companies intent on preserving the globe’s most precious resource. Already producing leading-edge,clean-water technology that is being marketed around the world, Ontario companies are now poised to experience further breakthroughs and major growth. The catalyst will be a real-life $60 million “platform” for innovation in watershed, wastewater and drinking water management to be established by the newly created Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC).

The SOWC is truly a major force with wide and substantial support. The Ontario and federal governments are major backers. Eight universities, all with track records in groundbreaking water research, are partners. Cities throughout southern Ontario, including the larger communities of London, Guelph and Waterloo, are making available their water and sewage systems. And some 70 companies, among them global leaders in water technology, are also eager to participate. IBM, alone, is contributing $20 million.

SOWC’s so-called platform, or “living lab,” is centred within the 6,800 square-kilometre Grand River Watershed with a population of nearly one million people. It will become the world’s largest water-testing laboratory, by far.

Another unique consortium feature is integrated water research. Explains Stewart: “We will, for example, be able to observe the impact of treated wastewater on the ecology of the watershed as well as on drinking water. Researchers in these disciplines typically don’t speak to each other.”

Glass of waterNow they will be talking and collaborating on all elements of water management. “We’re delighted to be part of this initiative,” says Linda Gowman, chief technology officer for Trojan Technologies, an Ontario company that uses ultraviolet light to, among other things, treat wastewater in many of the world’s largest cities.

Gowman is particularly pleased because SOWC offers the opportunity to test new techniques in operating municipal wastewater systems. “There’s no substitute for the real thing,” she says.

For some time, Gowman says, the company has felt that a nearby testing facility would provide Trojan with a competitive edge. She says, “We will get immediate access to any wastewater quality we need for testing purposes at any required amount for commercial development processes.”

John Vogan, Canadian operations manager for Arcadis, one of the world’s leading water consulting firms, agrees that the Grand River Watershed laboratory is SOWC’s key attraction. “Site access for testing is one of the biggest challenges facing water research pioneers anywhere,” he says. As a result, products tested in Ontario should get to market quicker and more efficiently.

Another leading water treatment company is Ontario-based GE Power and Water, which uses membranes to separate clean water from the dirty. Jeff Cumin, the company’s ideation manager responsible for early stages of membrane R&D, says GE’s product captures viruses, micro-organics and other invisible contaminants. As more pollutants from sources as diverse as pharmaceuticals, industry and animal feed threaten drinking water, isolating them becomes ever more critical.

“With SOWC, we’ll be able to test on a larger scale to improve quality and performance,” Cumin says. “The integration of various aspects of water management provides a really nice fit for staged development to get real world data that one can’t produce in a lab.”

That’s where IBM comes in. “We’ve been looking for a large project like this to invest in for some time, “says Donald Aldridge, general manager for research and life sciences at IBM Canada. “The opportunity to work with leading universities and their existing and future talent is a real investment in Ontario’s future as an innovation centre.”

Most of IBM’s $20 million will go toward developing sophisticated software that will capture and manipulate data picked up by sensors in the watershed. The data will be collected, analyzed and stored, if relevant. The sensors could, among other applications, follow the flow of treated sewage water that is released into the watershed or detect where leaks might be occurring in drinking water pipes.

Says Aldridge: “The interaction among many factors in our water supply is becoming ever more complicated with new pressures from rapid urbanization and climate change. Economic growth depends on solving these challenges, and we want to be part of the solution.

“The University of Waterloo has been designated as the lead university among the eight post-secondary participants, including the University of Toronto,, University of Guelph, Wilfrid Laurier University, University of Western Ontario, Ryerson University and University of Ontario Institute of Technology that goes back half a century.

In 2009, the university established a separate water institute that comprises faculty from 15 departments. Its executive director, David Rudolph, is one of the driving forces behind SOWC.

“We began with the idea of leveraging Ontario’s recognized R&D capability in water technology,” says Rudolph. “But much of our research strength was spread among different universities and we needed to bring them together to become a more significant global player.

“The big game-changer, in terms of obtaining government support, was to sign up significant multi-national and national companies that saw the benefit of a coalition with one portal. These are companies that want to interact with us and municipalities to test and commercialize new technologies and products.”

According to Rudolph, the SOWC research will focus on five areas:

  1. Wastewater treatment
  2. Drinking water
  3. watershed sustainability
  4. ecotoxicology, or how hazardous substances impact the water supply
  5. sensors, for early detection of contaminants

Rudolph sees SOWC as a way to break down a traditionally conservative and siloed approach to developing new water technologies. “Our integrated, multi-disciplined approach is unique worldwide,” he says. “We expect for the first time be able to handle sophisticated data in real time—timing is key; it stymies everyone.”

Once the consortium is fully operational, sometime in 2014, it will be sustained largely by user fees. Meanwhile, Walter Stewart’s phone is ringing off the hook. “I am getting calls from Israel, India and Finland, and across North America,” Stewart says. “This is going to be huge.”