Efficient water use can cut company costs

Businesses planning for the future may consider expenditure on energy, security risks, economic conditions and the latest marketing trends, but few think about water. Nicholas L Cain, communications director at the Pacific Institute in the USA, explains how the water factor can be a vital in global business strategy.

Per-Capita Water Withdrawals in the US

Per-Capita Water Withdrawals in the US

Economic Productivity of Water in the US
With municipal water costing far less than energy, and in many places being very cheap indeed, even large users of water have had few reasons to scrutinize their water use. However, a growing demand for water, coupled with over-stressed and polluted supplies, is beginning to force businesses that depend on this critical resource to give it a bit more thought.

The good news, according to a recent report by the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, is that there is a range of solutions that businesses can use to cut wasteful water use, improve efficiency, reduce environmental impact and often save money at the same time. The challenge is to get enterprises that have traditionally ignored this critical resource to think about what the future may hold for water.

"Water scarcity and other water-related issues are a serious threat to many different kinds of businesses in many different areas of the world, particularly multinationals with operations in developing nations," said Jason Morrison, director of the Pacific Institute's Economic Globalization and the Environment Program, and lead author of the report, "but increasingly, even companies in industrialised nations face serious threats."

The Pacific Institute study, Freshwater Resources: Managing the Risks Facing the Private Sector, outlines a range of troublesome trends:

· growing water scarcity in the face of skyrocketing demand and increasing competition
· community concerns about industrial water use and pollution
· conflict over water
· changes in water availability and quality stemming from climate change.

Although water-scarce regions of the developing world have been hardest hit by scarcity, pollution, and privatization, with places like Plachimada in India and China's capital seeing major battles between corporations and communities, industrialised nations are also facing serious threats.

In the United States, a judge recently ordered closure of Nestlé's US$150 million plant near Big Rapids, Michigan after a grassroots campaign drew attention to the plant's water use. Although bottling continues while the case is being appealed, the verdict was that Nestlé's plan to pump over 25L/s from a shallow, underground spring would lower surface water levels and slow stream flow rate, creating serious problems for the environment and other water users.

Nestle Waters is now facing a similar battle in McCloud, California, over plans to build a US$120 million plant to pump about 1.9 million m3 annually from three mountain springs in the area.

Despite these high-profile disputes in the US and elsewhere, only a small fraction of companies are moving to analyze their water use, plan for future shortages, improve efficiency, and work with local communities to defuse disagreements.

"Our research on California's urban water use has found that even efficient businesses can reduce their wasteful use of water and free up new supplies with technology and proper planning," noted Dr Peter H Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute and co-author of the report.

"Efforts to reach out to other water users and local communities can also be very useful to prevent disputes down the road," Gleick continued, "but corporations and other stakeholders have to recognize the importance of water to their operations before any meaningful change can happen."

The Pacific Institute report recommends ten steps companies can take to reduce their water-related impacts on the environment and local communities, and help protect their operations and their shareholders from business risks related to water. These include:

· measuring their current water use
· establishing a water policy with specific goals and perfor- mance targets
· improving water efficiency and conservation efforts (for both process and non-process use)
· engaging suppliers, commu- nity groups, and outside part- ners in an open dialogue on the issue.

The good news is that forward-thinking businesses have begun to track, report, and reduce their water use while reaching out to local governments, surrounding communities, and other water users. Major water users like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and Anheuser Bush have all made significant progress in analyzing their water consumption and improving efficiency of use.

Some companies that use significant amounts of water have turned to water recycling to reduce their water consumption with the added benefit of reducing wastewater production too.

Ciba Vision, one of the largest producers of contact lenses in the world, opened a facility outside Atlanta, Georgia, to make advanced lenses using a new, water-intensive process. But when Atlanta's explosive residential growth forced the local water company to cut by over half the amount of water available to the plant, Ciba Vision got creative.

Through a series of innovative process changes, including a system that recycles about 70% of the plant's wastewater, Ciba Vision was able to reduce their water consumption from 2650m3/d to 378m3/d while saving money, improving product quality and greatly reducing their wastewater output.

"Water has been so cheap in much of the world that businesses haven't had much incentive to improve efficiency," noted Morrison. "But as our study shows, the cost of having operations at a major facility interrupted, or even shut down, are too high to ignore."

Despite the challenges, businesses need not despair. There are many solutions already available and more on the way, as long as they take action before a crisis hits.


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