Helping companies face water supply costs and scarcity

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Canada_paper_mill_on_river
Differing locations means paper mills may require very different solutions depending on where they are.

By Emilio Tenuta

Global water scarcity has become the new norm and economic and population growth means demand is increasing. As people become wealthier, their lifestyles change. Rising demand for food, services and goods means more water is needed to fulfill their needs.

On the supply side, climate change is making access to water more difficult. Some places will get too much water, some will get too little, some will struggle with water quality and many will experience all of the above. If we stay on the current track, the United Nations projects that we will see a 40% freshwater deficit by 2030. Canada, despite being better off than many other countries, will not be spared.

The risks are evidenced by frequent droughts in the southern prairie provinces and British Columbia in recent years and massive wildfires that are becoming a nearly annual concern. Traditionally known as cool and wet, large parts of the country are turning hot and dry. Experts predict the situation will only get more dire in the coming decades.

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This is bound to have an effect on business. Already, agriculture is suffering, from wilting crops to thirsty cattle. Hydroelectric power generation has been challenged with low water levels. Air pollution from wildfires is threatening human health and productivity.

Unless industry builds resilience thro-ugh smart water management practices, the situation will not get better, but worse. But, at the same time, with the right water management approaches in place, companies can put themselves in a position to keep growing, even in a world of constrained water resources.

The unmistakable business case for saving water

We know water scarcity is not a far-off specter. It is here today and industry is not doing enough to change course and get ready. That is not for a lack of good intentions. From a poll conducted earlier this year by GreenBiz and Ecolab, it was learned that 88% of the companies surveyed, each with revenues above a billion dollars, intend to take action on sustainable water in the next three years. But 44% do not have a plan in place to do so.

That result didn’t come as a surprise. In 2017, the same survey showed that while 75% of companies have corporate water goals, 82% of them lack the tools and expertise to achieve them.

This explains why, in the face of a looming water crisis that is now only just over a decade off, industrial water usage has only fallen by 10% since 2011 and in fact has increased in recent years. From our daily work, we know that there is an “execution gap” between overarching water goals coming down from corporate headquarters and action on the ground at the individual facility level, where the real water savings must be made.

One of the challenges is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for water scarcity because all water is local. A paper mill in Manitoba may require very different solutions than a seemingly identical facility in Quebec. Is your facility by a river, a lake or a coastline? What are the prevailing weather conditions? What is the soil composition? Are there pollution issues in the area? Who are the other water users in the watershed and what are they withdrawing and discharging? All of these factors determine the best approach for each individual facility.

Tackling water scarcity across a nation as sprawling as Canada will take a patchwork of tailored, local solutions. And while that may seem complex and costly at first sight, the advantages are unmistakable:

Future-proof facilities – Water scarcity presents multiple risks to business, from rising costs to production interruptions and quality issues. A facility with mature water management practices can minimalize these risks because it is resilient to water scarcity.

Cost savings – Water is heavy, and it needs to be pumped, heated, cooled and treated. That takes a lot of energy, and while water today is generally underpriced, energy is not. A facility that reduces, reuses and recycles water, will automatically start saving money.

Lower greenhouse gas emissions – With water reductions come energy use reductions, which in most cases will bring along reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and make it easier to reach corporate climate goals.

Reputational capital – In an increasingly water-scarce world, wasteful users will invite controversy. Saving water means boosting your reputation and safeguarding your license to operate.

Water goals reached – Successful local solutions will add up to large water savings in the aggregate, closing the execution gap and enabling companies to achieve elusive water reduction targets.

Becoming water-smart

In 2018, Ecolab helped customers globally manage just under 4.2 trillion litres of water and save 714 billion litres. This is equivalent to the drinking water needs of more than 650 million people.

Ecolab’s Smart Water Navigator is a free, publicly available water management
instrument that was designed to equip businesses with the tools they need to empower their local facility teams and start building effective, smart water management practices.

Based on a 13-question online assessment, the Smart Water Navigator places the user’s facilities on the Water Maturity Curve, an easy way to visualize the quality of their current water management practices. A facility at the beginning of its water journey is “Untapped”; one that has developed fully mature, circular water management is “Water-smart”.

The tool generates a tailored guide for each facility, based on its industry, location and water maturity level, that provides a series of practical action steps to get to the next level. These can be as simple as fixing leaks and determining who is in charge of water issues at the facility. Or, they can be as complex as installing smart water meters or building water resource management procedures with all stakeholders in the surrounding basin.

Once a facility has completed the recommended steps, it can take the assessment again and learn how it has improved its Water Maturity level. As it repeats the process and moves up the curve, it develops more and more sophisticated practices, adding up efficiency gains and cost savings, and getting closer to truly circular, sustainable water management.

The Smart Water Navigator is open to any company, in any line of business, anywhere in the world, whether it is an Ecolab customer or not. We developed it in collaboration with ESG analysis provider S&P Trucost, an advisory panel of leading global companies and experts from The Pacific Institute and the World Resources Institute, which also provided its Aqueduct water scarcity maps.

The tool is built on four measurement criteria:

1. Site management – How does a company manage water issues in its operations? Which practices, processes and accountability structures are in place at the local level?

2. Water use practices – Which specific operational practices are in place within the four walls of a specific site regarding measuring, managing and optimizing water use in production processes and products?

3. Target setting – How are time-based metrics set? How do these metrics take into account water-related risks to business, context-specific local factors and the investments necessary to meet commitments?

4. Water stewardship – Which actions are taken outside a facility’s four walls? Is there a process that involves all stakeholders in the catchment? Is this process designed to generate socially equitable and environmentally and economically sustainable outcomes?

Based on these criteria, the Smart Water Navigator helps companies get a clear understanding of the road ahead for their facilities.

Emilio Tenuta is with Ecolab. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s October 2019 issue.

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