Domestic consumers can recycle wastewater within communities and use water-efficient fixtures. Industries can adopt technologies to reduce, reuse and recycle water.
By Mukund Vasudevan
Water scarcity is one of the biggest problems facing the humanity. Forget oil and gold, water is one of the world’s most valuable investments. Not just communities, businesses are also finding themselves in ever-greater competition for this finite resource as growing population drains reservoirs and rivers. Companies will have to start evaluating how their business models can be transformed in support of a water-secure future.
Main consumers of water are the agriculture, domestic and industrial sectors. But the water consumption pattern across these sectors is highly skewed—80% is consumed by agriculture, and 20% by domestic consumers/industries. That said, every sector must play a role in conserving water. We must ‘leave no one behind’ in our collective responsibility to conserve water. Farmers can look at drip irrigation or less water-intensive crops. Domestic consumers can recycle wastewater within communities and use water-efficient fixtures. Industries can adopt technologies to reduce, reuse and recycle water. There is a realisation that changes to pricing and policy in the agricultural and domestic sectors can be political hot buttons, especially in a country like India. Also, awareness-building and behavioural change takes time. The industrial sector realises the business imperative to reduce water usage. In summers, it’s not uncommon for industries to shut down due to water shortage. That leads me to argue that industry can be a front runner in conserving water.
Industries must look at leveraging the right technology to reduce water usage. The ‘right’ technology is one that not just looks good for a ‘sustainability report’, but also ensures RoI. A water footprint audit that includes flows and chemical changes to water across a plant can throw insights on where to invest for reducing/reusing water. Automation and predictive analysis can optimise performance of water-intensive assets, like boilers and cooling towers. One large steel plant has reduced its water consumption by 30% over the last three years—by adopting best-in-class technology and driving a culture of continuous improvement. Contrary to popular belief, this was not just a ‘sustainability’ effort. The new technology showed a less-than-three-year payback due to water and energy saving, and productivity improvement. By way of comparison, 30% water reduction is enough to serve the annual drinking water needs of a city like Delhi!
Second, industries must look at a basin approach. This requires looking beyond their boundaries to adjoining companies and municipalities to optimise water consumption in the entire area or basin (water source). Not only does this create economies of scale for investment, it also highlights some interesting cost-saving opportunities. Take the case of one factory in Maharashtra that was getting tanker water to satisfy production demands. At a conference, the plant manager discovered that a neighbouring factory discharged a lot of wastewater (effluents) and paying for this. Over coffee, a simple but unique idea was born. By treating the second factory’s wastewater and transporting that treated wastewater to the first factory, the latter would be able to meet its raw water needs. Not only did the first factory save money by replacing tanker water, it also managed the basin’s water resources better. Companies should explore such opportunities, so that total water consumption of both industries as well as communities in the vicinity is optimised. The water resources ministry has passed a law requiring all power plants within 50 km of a city to use treated municipal waste. That is an excellent move to protect water in an entire basin.
Industry bodies like FICCI and CII, through initiatives like the FICCI Water Mission and CII Water Innovation Summit, are doing their bit. Such platforms have recognised businesses that demonstrate their commitment to reduce water consumption and driving a circular economy.
In every country, water is a multifaceted problem. While there are growing instances of innovative practices that are leading to more efficient use of water, the current situation calls for a stronger, nationwide, multi-stakeholder action. We must tackle the demand-side to reduce water consumption by agriculture, industry and consumer. In parallel, we must tackle the supply-side to make more water available to each segment of users. Finally, the government must play a role by ensuring optimal pricing of water, incentives (for conservation), and providing the right water and wastewater infrastructure. In short, saving the world’s water requires a concerted effort, where no one is left behind.
Author is MD & country head-India, Ecolab, and co-chair, Water Sector, FICCI