Breakingviews - Wall Street mistakes water for a business washout

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STOCKHOLM (Reuters Breakingviews) - Stockholm’s architecture, waterways and balmy climate make Sweden’s capital a tourist haven in the summer. Throw in the networking appeal of almost 4,000 people in town for the annual World Water Week confab, including government officials and executives from big companies like Diageo, Apple and Nestlé, and it’s hard to imagine Wall Street types not flooding the event. But most stay away.

They are missing out. The world is facing a 40% shortfall in clean, fresh supplies by 2030, according to the United Nations, with India one example of a country where a huge population and rapid development are on a collision course with scarce water resources. Plenty of factors are behind that, including population growth. But climate change is making floods and droughts worse and changing snow and rainfall patterns. The financial and economic implications are immense and could, the UN estimates, require some $12 trillion in investment over the next 11 years.

That ought to mean plentiful opportunities for finance whizzes. And it won’t just be for large, old-style projects. Some of these will doubtless be necessary, and some will happen regardless. “There’s always a business case for stupid infrastructure,” the Dutch special envoy for water, Henk Ovink, told conference-goers on Sunday during a discussion of dams.

But all manner of smaller, greener projects can often do a better job, and at lower cost – like green roofs, replanting vegetation for flood protection, and so on. Such efforts in Chennai in India, for example, could provide the city with the water its citizens need for a third of the $1.5 billion cost of mainstream projects while also reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by a third, Ovink says.

And there’s plenty of evidence that smart, environmentally friendly investments in water infrastructure can earn a decent return. Levi Strauss, for example, got as much as $4 back for every $1 spent boring holes to provide employees with fresh water. Finding backers willing to bet on expanding that kind of idea is precisely what investment bankers are supposed to do.

That’s without considering financing and advisory work as industries including agriculture, energy, consumer products, oil and gas, and mining, to name just a few that rely heavily on water, are forced to change. The finance whizzes are mistaking water for a business washout.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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