Water: Make it our business

Today is UN World Water Day, and it is followed fast tomorrow by Earth Hour. Given rising worldwide interest in the challenges of supplying clean water, I wonder how many business leaders in Singapore will be discussing water today? Perhaps not as many as should be, but probably more than we might expect.

Given the worldwide focus on these pressing environmental concerns, it is important to note, the relationship between water and energy is closer than a lot of people think. Water is a fuel, vital for business and every bit as critical to moving our economy forward as energy. Almost a quarter of the world’s limited water supply is used by industry.

As a business leader, it’s this figure that catches my attention. A lot of consciousness around water use relates to direct use of water in our homes. Yet, only eight percent of water is consumed domestically. The remainder is used by agriculture and industry.

Efforts to extend the utility of each drop of water on the individual level should be applauded,especially today, but we can truly make a difference by paying more attention to water used by industry. By looking at the supply chain and industry’s total water impacts in a holistic manner, big gains, big savings can be made by business.

Fortunately, boardroom attitudes to water are changing. Water is serious business, especially if there’s too little or too much. Many of tomorrow’s successful businesses will be those that can capitalise on changing global water availability, measure and manage their water use, and manage the risks that water shortage or excess can pose to their supply chain.

The CDP Global Water Report 2012 articulates the concerns and challenges facing many large, global companies: 318 from the Global 500. 68 per cent of these report exposure to water-related risks with 71 per cent of respondents also able to state whether or not their supply chains are exposed to such risk.

In addition, as a world, we are getting thirstier. Water use is outpacing population growth, rapid in and of itself. We are using our water at more than twice the rate of population increase during the last century. This thirst has been driven by global trends like increased migration to cities and rising demand for more and varied goods and services.

As Asia’s manufacturing base swells, for example, so does its thirst for water. It is estimated that industry use of water in Asia will increase by 65 per cent by 2030.

Electricity production also plays a major role. Large quantities of water are typically required in power production, and seemingly small and unrelated actions can have staggering implications on consumption when aggregated. For example, a simple Google search consumes the equivalent of one sixtheenth of a teaspoon of water, according to one of our engineers.

So what is to be done? Change all electricity production to renewables? Unfortunately, wind and solar photovoltaic are the only two technologies with minimal water withdrawal impacts, but even they too require water. What’s more, switching to renewables in the near term is not pragmatic. The sheer volume of new builds required to offset current generation capacity is daunting, let alone the needed development of advanced storage technologies. But the goal of using more water efficient technologies at the thousands of conventional power plants, however, could produce significant gains.

Around the world, we’re seeing this happen. In South Africa, Black & Veatch helped Eskom adopt air-cooled condensers as an alternative over traditional water cooling techniques at its 4,800MW Kusile power plant. When completed, it will be one of the largest power plants in the world using air-cooling technology and save approximately 327,000 cubic meters per day of water when operating at full load, more than enough to fill 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools through this one innovation.

Outside the power sector, there are many innovations that other businesses can apply to save water.
Reuse is a way businesses could make a big impact on their water consumption. Recent advances in membrane technology, championed in countries like Singapore, mean high quality recycled water can be produced cost effectively and meet rigorous requirements of specialized producers of semi-conductors and pharmaceuticals.

Other industrial players, including power producers, can also look seriously at closed loop applications, where systems retain and reuse hot water, steam, or cold water for a variety of alternative uses. Real, long-term operational savings can be reaped from limited capital investments.

The close connection between water and energy is also providing new ideas. The beverage industry is beginning to harness biogas, like many water utilities in the wastewater treatment process, to generate heat and energy to power the process from the process itself.

Outside of new technologies, the investment community can also play a key role in securing our water supplies. Water demand is in elastic.
Goldman Sachs once again highlighted last month the stable, long-term return that investing in utilities, infrastructure and water rights provides.

I’d encourage general business readers to continue to participate in conservation programmes and best practices to save water and hold fast to the old saying, “you may not think about water everyday, but you should.” Also, remember to turn off the lights!

Dr Hoe Wai Cheong is Executive Managing Director of Black & Veatch in Asia Pacific. He recently took on a duel role of managing the company’s water and energy business to help business in Asia gain from the interconnection between these two precious resources.

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