30 Aug Circular approaches to improve water quality: A linchpin for corporate water stewardship
Systemic water risks for business are growing and are being exacerbated by climate change events: from industrial groundwater extraction becoming a growing driver of community opposition and social license to operate risk to droughts causing operational disruptions and credit downgrades, water challenges are having material impacts on the sustainable growth of companies across industry sectors.
The lack of water availability is highlighted as a key business challenge but declining water quality could further exacerbate water stress if available quantities are contaminated and not fit for use. Poor quality affects not just surface water but also major groundwater reserves. 132 cities reporting to CDP cite declining water quality as a risk and 80% report these risks as serious or extremely serious. Deteriorating water quality is particularly acute in developing countries where agricultural and industrial activity is concentrated, and where there is lack of adequate wastewater treatment facilities. In many developing countries, waterways traditionally used for drinking water or other community needs have been heavily contaminated. Companies contribute to the problem in the form of untreated wastewater from industrial activities being discharged into waterways but equally need to address quality issues as high quality water is a key input for many industries. According to the United Nations, 70% of industrial waste in developing countries is being discharged untreated into rivers and lakes.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, water pollution levels are reaching critical levels. According to the Asian Development Bank, nearly 80% of wastewater being discharged in water bodies in Asia get little or no primary treatment. In South Asia, over half of the groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic basin is contaminated with salt or arsenic and across China, over a quarter of deep aquifers have unsafe levels of nitrate pollution.
Such high levels of water pollution in the region pose operational and reputational challenges for business. 75% of the world’s largest semiconductor factories are in Asia and require vast amounts of ultra clean water as an input in production. A shutdown driven by poor quality water at a fabrication facility could result in USD 100-$200 million in missed revenue during a quarter. Recently, key players in the retail apparel industry that control 75% of viscose production were under NGO scrutiny when they were found to have supply chain linkages to highly polluted factories in Asia.
Water-intensive industries will need to take a more leading position on sustainable production processes and water-reuse technologies to address the challenge. A shift to a circular water economy can be a way forward to improving water quality. For e.g. apparel brand Levi-Strauss & Co has collaborated with one if its supplier factories in China to introduce a new process for using 100% recycled water in part of its garment production to reduce effluent. The water is treated to meet local water standards and Levi’s global effluent standards and then re-treated by a micro-filtration system for re-use in the manufacturing process. Embracing a circular water strategy can also support SDG6 that centers on improving water use efficiency, recycling and reuse by the 2030 timeframe. Target 6.3 aims at improving water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.
The forthcoming Earth Security Report 2017 will be focusing on water in a multi-faceted way – regional water cooperation for energy investments in the Belt and Road region, water pollution in India and how it is driving antimicrobial resistance and how water shortages in coffee growing regions directly threaten future production. The report will discuss blueprints for action that can help business, governments and industry associations advance transformative solutions.
(Photo Credit: Water pollution in India / creampuffxx / Flickr)