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Managing the water impact of Asia’s industrial boom

Italian firm De Nora is reaching out to help Asia’s booming industries manage wastewater pollution risks from its Singapore regional headquarters.

Switching on a light at home, refilling a car with petrol or signing for a package delivery is unlikely to prompt many people to question the impact of their actions on water pollution.

But this is a central concern for the power plants, petrochemical companies and shipping firms that deliver these conveniences to consumers. These sectors not only rely heavily on water for their operations, but also risk incurring heavy penalties if they violate regulations on wastewater treatment. 

Regulators keep a close eye on the impact of these heavy industries for good reason; they are a major cause of freshwater contamination and pollution, and the consequences of pollution can be devastating. 

This is seen in China’s ‘cancer villages’, where industrial water pollution has caused a massive spike in cancer rates in villages across the country; or the recent death of tens of thousands of fish in Vietnam due to a toxic spill from a nearby steel factory.

Globally, UN Water, a collaboration between various United Nations agencies, estimates that the fossil fuel sector alone contaminates between 15 and 18 billion cubic metres of freshwater resources every year—this is equivalent to 7.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools. The manufacturing, agriculture, and shipping sectors compound this problem further. 

The problem is especially acute in developing countries; UN Water estimates that as much as 70 percent of industrial wastewater is dumped into waterways untreated in developing countries globally.

In Asia Pacific, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) puts this figure at 80 percent. The risk of industrial water pollution is likely to increase as the region experiences rapid population and economic growth.

Not only will this have dire consequences for the region’s citizens and communities, but industrial firms also risk financial and reputational damage in the form of fines, public protests, and boycotts. However, proper water management can also benefit companies in many ways. 

As ADB puts it, “wastewater must be seen as a resource with potential financial returns”, citing gains such as the production of an alternate water supply for irrigation, cooling, or industrial use, generating energy or providing green employment opportunities. 

Technology innovation to minimize risks

One company that has spent almost a century developing solutions that minimise the risks associated with inadequate wastewater management is Italian electrochemical technologies giant De Nora.

The company, which provides electrochemistry-based solutions for sectors such as renewable energy storage, mining, and agriculture, in 2015 set up a subsidiary, De Nora Water Technologies, to deliver its solutions for industrial and municipal wastewater treatment.

The company’s industrial water treatment technologies include systems that can produce sodium hypochlorite—a chemical to disinfect effluent water—on-site; machines that can pipe chlorine gas into effluent water to disinfect it; and treat water on offshore oil rigs and ships using a method called electrolysis to make it safe to discharge.

According to De Nora, which has had a presence in Singapore since the 1980s, Southeast Asia’s water treatment sector is worth some US$20 billion. The city-state is currently the company’s regional headquarters; providing sales and technical services to clients across Asia Pacific. 

Vincenzo Palma, De Nora’s sales director for disinfection in Asia Pacific and China, tells Future Ready Singapore in a recent interview: “We see that Singapore can be a hub for expanding our technology into the Southeast Asian market.” 

If you run an agricultural business and do not keep your surrounding waterways clean, the quality of your own crops will be affected.

Vincenzo Palma, sales director for disinfection Asia PAcific and China, De Nora Water Technologies

Scaling water treatment in Asia

De Nora’s presence in Singapore began with electrode manufacturing factories in the island nation’s Tuas industrial district in the 1980s. Since then, De Nora has evolved its presence in Singapore into a regional headquarters with sales and technical operations.

Today, it provides municipal water treatment technologies to the country’s national water agency even as it serves  an industrial clientele of power plants, marine and offshore engineering firms, and environmental solutions firms in Singapore and the region. 

While the primary motivation behind these companies engaging De Nora is the need to comply with wastewater treatment regulations, Palma shares that “we also see some companies using our technology to exceed regulatory requirements, and demonstrate that they are environmentally responsible”. 

Now, the company has its sights set on rapid regional expansion. It reaffirmed this ambition at last year’s Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), a mega-event featuring a trade expo and conference around water issues. 

In a statement, Luca Buonerba, De Nora’s global chief marketing and business development officer says that “we see enormous potential for our Singapore operation, which dates back to 80s, and our focus is now on improving the water and wastewater quality of the Southeast Asia region”.

Palma tells Future Ready Singapore that top on the list of markets De Nora has its sights on are Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, along with securing more clients in Indonesia and Malaysia.

As these Southeast Asian nations develop and begin to pay more heed to the need for better wastewater management, Palma has his eye on a potential boom in demand for water treatment solutions in the region.

Even though high levels of water pollution in Asia’s waterways show that many companies have not yet adopted adequate measures to ensure their effluent is clean and does not damage the ecosystems it enters, companies must realise that eventually their own operations will be affected, he says. 

“For example, if you run an agricultural business and do not keep your surrounding waterways clean, the quality of your own crops will be affected,” explains Palma. The same goes for industries which require clean water for their operations. 

Asia’s water treatment hub

Singapore has played a key role in De Nora’s regional success so far—the company’s annual growth rate in Asia Pacific has been 10 percent for the past five years—and Palma expects it to continue to grow rapidly as the company explores new markets. 

While the research and development for De Nora’s core technologies takes place in its headquarters, the company would not be possible to serve its regional clients without its Singapore office, says Palma.

This is because the technologies need to be tailored for each client’s specific needs, and De Nora’s base in Singapore helps the company work with its clients to do so.

“We see the industry in Asia grow aggressively, which has led to an increased demand for advanced technologies but at minimal cost,” Palma explains. Having a presence in Singapore has allowed De Nora to easily make site visits to facilities in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and identify ways to deliver De Nora Technologies in the most cost-effective way possible.

 “Being in Singapore allows us to develop a strong understanding of the operating environment and cultures in Asia’s various markets,” Palma adds.

Singapore’s proactive support of the water technology sector has also benefit the company, he shares.

“Water resources are so precious in this country, and there is a lot of motivation to conserve water,” says Palma. 

This has given rise to an industrial ecosystem comprising more than 20 water research institutes, numerous water companies, a S$200 million boost for research and development in the industry, announced last year, and events such as the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), Palma shares.

De Nora has tapped on this to pursue industry collaborations with consultants and contractors to design and deliver its solutions for the region.

Singapore’s attention to, and support for water treatment technologies has also meant that the talent the sector attracts is of a high quality, says Palma. 

“The level of preparation of every engineer we have is exceptional,” says Palma. “Their skills are essential for building the complex, customised solutions that De Nora delivers to every client.”

“It will continue to be like that,” he says, referring to Singapore’s thriving water treatment ecosystem. “It is the Singapore way.”


This article was originally published on Future Ready Singapore.

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