Business strategy is about making choices which will support growth. Resource management strategies should be aligned to business strategy, and are about ensuring that organisations have a ready supply of resources to enable growth, use these resources as efficiently as possible and have as little impact on the environment as possible in the use of these resources.
Water is widely used in industry and even organisations that appear to use very little water per unit of production can have an enormous impact on water resources. In order to determine whether your organisation requires a water management strategy as part of its broader sustainability strategy, it is important to review your water use from a number of perspectives.
Industries interface with water resources in a number of ways:
· Many of the raw materials used in industry require water for their production and have the potential to incur pollution of water resources during their production;
· In water-scarce environments, industries can have a real impact on the availability of water for downstream users, both in terms of quantity and quality. In a country such as South Africa, which has an extensive water transfer network, the impacts are often felt far away from the location in which the water is ultimately used;
· Industry can have negative impacts on local ecosystems when the water required to remain in watercourses in order to sustain the local ecology (the so-called “reserve”) is not maintained;
· Abstraction of water can impact on the aquatic environment through the entrainment and impingement of aquatic fauna and flora – the design of abstraction systems is important here, but for very large users, the sheer volume involved makes mitigation challenging;
· The quality of incoming water dictates the impact it will have on processing operations (e.g. scaling of heat transfer surfaces) and the treatment options industries need to exercise before the water can be used – this is an example of how, while industries impact on water quality, incoming water quality also has a profound impact on industrial operations;
· Industries ultimately integrate themselves into the macro water cycle, and the precise manner in which they use water dictates how they will impact on that cycle. If large quantities of water are evaporated, this water will not become available to downstream users, while if water is not evaporated but discharged, its quality determines its impact on downstream users. This in turn determines how these users will employ the water in their operations, and their impact on the water cycle. There is therefore a “systems effect” which industrial water users impose on other water users;
· Water management issues can have significant impacts on issues which on the surface appear unrelated to water. For example, irrigation of pastures with treated effluent could introduce pollutants into the food chain;
· Much is made of the so-called “water energy nexus”, but in industrial environments, water use impinges on energy, material usage, product quality, employee and community safety, air pollution control and many other aspects of operations. A water management strategy has to be an integrated view of water’s relationship to all of these issues. As a simple example, a decision to conserve water by not proceeding with a wet scrubber system which would improve air quality would be wrong. Dry options that could achieve the same air quality could however be part of a solution to both problems, and research into this could be incorporated into the strategy.
It is ultimately the quantity and quality aspects of water management that are of interest. These issues are relevant for your own operations, those of your suppliers and those of the users of your products. In the latter instance, the water use of interest is that specifically associated with the use and disposal of your products. The questions to be answered by your organisation’s water management strategy (for your own operations, those of your suppliers and those of your customers) are broadly as follows:
· Is there sufficient water available and what are the short, medium and long-term projections for water supply? This issue will clearly also impact on the cost of water;
· What is the impact of acquiring this water on the environment, now and in the future? – if water needs to be pumped large distances to meet the needs of your operations, those of your suppliers and those of the users of your products, there could be a significant emissions component to the overall environmental footprint of the water use, for example;
· Is the quality of the water available adequate and what are the business and environmental impacts for your organisation of incoming water quality? How is this quality changing over time?
· How do your operations, those of your suppliers and those of the users of your products impact on water quality, and what is the impact on those who ultimately use this water?
· In minimising your water use and mitigating impacts on other users, what are the potential negative impacts on other aspects of your operations?
Review of these questions gives the lie to common perception that only large water users require a water management strategy. Industries which use little water often have the potential to pollute large volumes of water by virtue of their effluent discharges (which may be small in volume but highly concentrated), or incur large water uses in areas of their product life cycles outside of their immediate processing operations.
What should be clear from the above is that in answering these questions and in devising the strategies necessary to ensure sustainable water use, you will need to engage with a wide range of stakeholders. These will include not only stakeholders in your supply chain and customer base, but also regulators, industry specialists, alternate suppliers, researchers, policymakers and of course other water users.
It is probably easiest to begin with your own operations and then broaden your strategy to include other stakeholders over time. The key issues should however initially be unearthed with a detailed risk assessment, which is a useful way of prioritising the appropriate course of action.