A check-in interview with Zach Weiss, founder of Elemental Ecosystems and Water Stories, about his mission to train hundreds of thousands of people in key water restoration techniques, institutions, how would Zach make the space investable and bankable, and much more.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
This episode is part of the Water Cycles series, supported by The Nest, where we interview the dreamers and doers who are using the latest technology to figure out where to intervene first. They are making or trying to make the investment and return calculations. so what is missing, what is holding us back? Maybe we lack the imagination to back them and try regeneration at scale.
We interviewed Zach four and a half years ago. What has he seen in the last years? Has the conversation changed? Have institutions that should be all over this topic- because of job creation, costly flood and fire prevention, reduced peak temperates not even speaking about increased agriculture production- started paying attention?
THE WATER CONVERSATION HASN’T REACHED THE RIGHT PLACES YET
Zach has not seen much adoption from more corporate financial interests, and that’s partly due to some inherent friction.
”Part of that is due to the ways that this movement in India goes about things. And it’s, I think, very understandable, even from both sides, if we really want to look at it objectively. For example, one of the biggest parties working against regenerative work, were the mining companies, because in reviving the landscape and causing reverse migration. Now these mining companies had a bunch of people living where they wanted to mine, and so there was a lot more friction to them being able to mine that landscape. When everyone was leaving and going into the city, it was great for the mining companies because everyone was leaving. They had free access to the land, they could exploit it however they wanted. When people started coming back, they didn’t want their waters poisoned and destroyed, they didn’t want their lands destroyed.” – Zach Weiss
TOO MANY PEOPLE AND COMPANIES STILL BENEFIT FROM WATER SCARCITY
Zach argues, you would think the World Water Forum would want to support the work of bringing water to everyone, but they actually kicked them out.
”The World Water Forum works as a shell for Coca-Cola and Nestlé. And all these water corporations to go into third world countries, convince them to privatize their water supply, buy that water supply, and then sell it to the highest bidder. So, there are some real financial interests against this kind of movement, because this movement gives power back to the masses, and whittles down the control and the economic viability of some of these resources. I think the easiest way to understand is that, in a water scarce world, water is incredibly lucrative. In a water-abundant world, water has no value almost. So, there’s some inherent friction between the powers that control water currently and their financial interests and make a balanced, healthy, stable climate for all people in life on the planet.” – Zach Weiss
ZACH WOULD INVEST IN MICROLOANS FOR LOW-PRODUCING AGRICULTURE REGIONS SUFFERING FROM WATER STRESS
At a project Zach visited in India, the community was out of water, and they could only farm on 9 hectares because all their wells were dry. They spent huge amounts of money trying to fix it, but they couldn’t. Then they put in one water body, which enabled them to go from 9 hectares to 650 hectares. And they produced four times the cost of that water body and increase their agricultural productivity.
”The second piece which I think is the most hopeful, is the possibility for microfinancing loans, and to specifically go into areas that are agriculturally underperforming because of water scarcity. And when you go into those areas, and give them a small loan to implement water resiliency, now you take that community and you immediately give them the source material they need to drastically increase their agricultural production.” – Zach Weiss
“So, they needed X money to create the water body, and in the first year their increased revenues were 4x, and that’s going to continue year after year in perpetuity […] So, I think something like what water.org has done for microfinancing of sanitation, we need microfinancing of landscape regeneration. And in so many of these cases, we see that these small effective loans have a very high repay rate. I think water.org has a 98/99% repay rate. And so, their fund keeps growing because they’re not just giving money away, they’re saying we’re gonna give you money, we expect this much in return. And then their fund keeps growing.” – Zach Weiss
WATER BONDS COULD BE AN INTERESTING ANGLE TO DEPLOY CAPITAL
Zach has a concept of a water bond he would love to implement someday. It is about taking money and growing the overall value of that bond by implementing projects in key areas where they know it’s going to be effective, where they know that after the implementation the community is going to be able to repay the loan easily.
”Monitoring is set by the top level of governance and implementation is set by the bottom level. This was done with the Rhine River restoration, it was incredibly effective. I think, a lot of times these top-down movements fail, because the people setting out the directives and everything that’s to be done is far away, they don’t have any connection with the land. Whereas instead, like with this Rhine River, they said we want these different metrics to all improve, we have these goals to ultimately accomplish, we’re going to give the local people the money, and as long as they keep producing and improving on those metrics, we’re going to keep giving them the money. And it was incredibly effective, they accomplished all their goals in a shorter period of time with less money than they anticipated. They even accomplish their really far-out goals of salmon starting to be on the river again. And so it’s, I think we can follow this model where we can let the people on the ground actually determine what exactly needs to happen and where, and let the people at the top, just fund it and say we’re going to follow these metrics, and as long as these metrics are continuing to improve, we’re going to keep giving you the funding […] You can be very effective by harmonizing these two groups together, instead of one imposing their will on the other in either direction.” – Zach Weiss
NEW TECHNOLOGY MAKES BETTER MAPS BUT MAKES US WORSE LANDSCAPE DESIGNERS
According to Zach, we’re leaning on tech tools so heavily that we’re not performing the basic site analysis that we should be. The mapping is getting better, but that it’s making people even worse designers as a result.
”From what I see in the land design movement, people are mostly already way too dependent on technology. And so, in some ways, I think as the maps get better, people become worse designers, because they’re not looking at the landscape as much. I can’t tell you how many times I walk a landscape, and the main vein of the landscape, where the springs are coming out, where the water flow is, is not where you would ever put it on a contour map.” – Zach Weiss
”I was just on a project where I came in after a big-name permaculture designer. The design that they had was kind of trash, it left all the structural problems in that landscape in place, but it painted over them with a pretty hedge. So, they left all the drains, draining all the fields in place, but they made them an edible hedge drain.” – Zach Weiss
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Zach also talked about:
- How to scale in the modern world
- Machine learning as a data metric for waterways
- The importance of the stories we are told
- Zach Weiss – Climate change is a symptom of watercycle disturbance and we can fix it
- Water cycles series
- Neal Spackman – Why it is so difficult to get truly regenerative water and ecosystem restoring projects funded
- Alpha Lo – What if water is more important than carbon
- Millán Millán – Farm water at its proper scale
- Marcel de Berg – Water is a more important cooling factor than the heat of carbon
- Ties van der Hoeven – The regreening project we can’t afford not to do, restoring the water and weather systems in the Med, starting with fish
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.