Make every drop count

By AJIT GULABCHAND

Water must be managed by a coalition of public, private and civil society interests.

Water should be seen as a commercial good to avoid wasteful use. — Sushil Kumar Verma

Water should be seen as a commercial good to avoid wasteful use. — Sushil Kumar Verma

Water is one of the most indispensable of all natural resources. It is vital for the survival of human beings and the scarcity of water has a significant impact on our economic development and biological diversity.

Water is one of the most indispensable of all natural resources. It is vital for the survival of human beings and the scarcity of water has a significant impact on our economic development and biological diversity.

Nations across the world, including India, have recently been facing the challenge of rapidly growing water demands, driven by an increased population and economic growth, linked to urbanisation and industrialisation. Also, the prevailing water scarcity is not only a result of quantitative or qualitative scarcity but also a consequence of inefficient use and poor water management, which has been recognised in India’s draft Water Policy (2012).

Water security is one of the most tangible and fastest-growing social, political and economic challenges faced today. It is also a fast-unfolding environmental crisis. In every sector, the demand for water is expected to increase and analysis suggests that the world will face a 40 per cent global shortfall between forecast demand and available supply by 2030.

This outlook bears potential for crisis and conflict since water lies at the heart of everything that is important for human life: food, sanitation, energy, and production of goods, transport and the biosphere as such.

BASIC RIGHT AND BEYOND

Water has been argued to be a social good. It is commonly accepted that access to water is a basic human right. However, being a social good and private good are not mutually exclusive conditions. In fact, more water for one individual can mean less water for other individuals who share a water-supply system. Classifying water as a basic human right, therefore, introduces further social complications in terms of equitable distribution.

Water is a commercial good when it comes to farming, manufacturing, etc. Water is environmental good and we need to conserve it to conserve our environment.

Water needs to be defined not only as a social good, to which everybody is entitled free of cost, but also as commercial good — to be paid for and an environmental good that you treat with great respect.

India will face around 50 per cent of water shortage and an expenditure of around $6 billion per annum for the next 5-6 years is needed to restore the balance.

While the Government must be the ultimate custodian of the national water resources and plays the key role in setting frameworks and strategies, many other stakeholders also have a role to play in delivering solutions.

Proper coordination within government-set strategies requires sound facts and an approach that supports cost-effective solutions. The resulting need for multi-stakeholder engagement means that coalitions are required; public-private-civil society coalitions focused collectively on addressing the water security issue, each leveraging its own comparative advantage towards meeting the challenge within a common policy framework.

Theoretically, managing water as an economic good entails that water can be allocated across competing uses in a way that maximises the net benefit from the amount of water in question. Practically, the increasing financial burden on users to pay for clean water has social and political implications. There has been growing controversy over the privatisation of water worldwide as the economic principles of valuation, privatisation and efficiency are being applied to water, a resource that many consider a basic human need and right.

BUSINESS RISK

Growing competition for scarce water resources is a growing business risk, a major economic threat, and a challenge for the sustainability of communities and the ecosystems upon which they rely. It is an issue that has serious implications for the stability of countries in which businesses operate, and for industries whose value chains are exposed to water scarcity.

Recognising the gravity of the problem, The 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) was formed in 2008 to contribute new insights to the increasingly critical issue of water resource scarcity. Members include McKinsey & Company and the World Bank Group (led by the International Finance Corporation – IFC) with a consortium of business partners, including Hindustan Construction Company.

All the competing sectors, be it agriculture or industry, must practise water use efficiency to the extent possible. Water efficiency measures must be viewed holistically within a business’ strategic planning. Businesses that use water more efficiently now will have a competitive advantage over those that choose to wait. A successful programme must prioritise needs, set well-informed goals, establish current performance minimums and carefully plan a course for action.

WAYS TO BOOST EFFICIENCY

Some ways to achieve water use efficiency within the fence of a given industry are:

Identifying and eliminating wastage and inefficient processes: This may be the most low-cost area for water savings, as it involves minimal capital outlay. Savings can be made through implementing procedural changes, such as cleaning plant areas with brooms rather than water.

Changing processes and equipment: A retrofit of key plant equipment may increase efficiency. Alternatively, upgrades to more efficient models can be factored into planned maintenance and replacement schedules.

Recycling and Reusing treated wastewater: This option may improve the reliability of supply, whilst reducing trade waste charges and associated environmental risks.

Out of suggested measures, equipment (and/or process) changes may be viewed as a ‘permanent fix’ to achieve water efficiency. Changing employee behaviour, such as an operating procedure, may be viewed as a quick and inexpensive way to achieve similar savings without up-front capital expenses. Both the technical and human side of water management is important. Consistent training and awareness, in combination with proper tools and equipment, have the potential to achieve more permanent water savings.

Recycling or reuse of industrial wastewater is possible through adoption of preventive approaches at each production stage to minimise the generation of wastewater.

Segregation of wastewater streams is one of the commonly used preventive strategies to achieve efficient treatment of effluent aimed at recycle and reuse.

Although there is a growing awareness of the strategic importance of water, very few industries across India manage water in a systemic and holistic way.

Water management, in the majority of industries, is limited to ensuring the provision of water. In some instances, there are efforts to control or treat effluents and some responsible businesses go beyond the convention and adopt absolute water use efficiency. However, in most of the cases where water efficiency efforts are implemented as a mere formality, they tend to be unorganised, often leading to sub-optimal results.

These disappointing results may make the management more inclined to withhold its support for any future efficiency projects. Potential exists within the industrial sector to substantially boost water productivity provided it is being adopted/guided by an adequate mechanism.

(The author is Chairman and Managing Director, Hindustan Construction Company)