Environment and Sustainability

Rethinking the water crisis: Manage the demand first

While the world is dealing with several threats, ranging from cyber crimes to political instability and economic downturns, the most fundamental crisis that we need to address urgently is diminishing freshwater supply

Updated: Aug 24, 2020 06:42:42 PM UTC
Water-Crisis_SM
Image: Shutterstock

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “There is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed.” In an era when we’re grappling with gross over-consumption and abuse of the world’s natural resources, this quote certainly rings true.

When it comes to conserving resources, the water crisis in India (and across the globe) probably tops the list of issues that we need to address urgently. In fact, MIT in a recent study says the 'water stress' is one of the top 10 mega-trends that will shape the world. Freshwater is literally the lifeblood of our society today. Yet, per capita availability of freshwater in India has declined sharply from 3,000 cubic metres to 1,123 cubic metres over the last 50 years. According to the Composite Water Management Index, close to 600 million Indians are subjected to extreme water stress conditions and 40 percent of the surface water is used every year. With the ever-increasing population and growing demand, the situation is set to deteriorate further.

So, the water crisis is no longer just the government’s problem or the agriculture sector’s problem or an industry problem. It is everybody’s problem. Of course, there’s no denying the fact that the lion’s share of the solution needs to come from addressing the agricultural sector, given that it consumes close to 80 percent of freshwater reserves. Still, the industry has a big role to play in solving the crisis.

Solutions to the water crisis fall into two buckets: demand (or reducing water usage) and supply (augmenting availability of water). So, where does one start?

The 2030 Water Resources Group has developed a water availability cost curve that uses microeconomics to analyse the cost versus impact of various solutions. This is a useful tool to identify the most optimal measures that agriculture, industry and governments can undertake to create maximum impact. The larger the breadth of the bar (X-axis), the more the water availability from that solution. The higher the bar, the more expensive this solution is (a negative height on the bar, indicates that there is actually payback from this solution, not just a cost). So, it makes sense to implement solutions that lie to the left of the chart and have the largest breadth. This will provide the maximum bang for the buck.

This chart shows that contrary to popular belief, some misplaced government proposed solutions like desalination, national river linking plan, or aquifer recharging are too expensive for the benefit they yield. Instead, solutions like reducing over-irrigation, widespread adoption of drip or micro-irrigation, and industrial water-reduction solutions, and wastewater recycling will provide much larger benefits for less cost. In short, the solution lies in reducing demand for water, not trying to augment the supply of water.

Water-Crisis_SM

Building on this theme of demand management, industry can help evangelise water conservation measures not just within their own operations ('industrial levers' in the chart above), but also by influencing their agriculture-based suppliers. Industry can also play a huge role in influencing government to take the right action or set up the right policy on water.

Industry clean-up
Industries can employ reverse osmosis systems and cutting-edge Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to track real-time water usage. When coupled with analytics, we can track leakage and predict unusual water consumption. Most of these technologies deliver a significant return on investment. The Hilton Group of hotels, for instance, deployed an innovative dishwashing and low-temp laundry program. Combining the right chemistry with automation helped save 417 million gallons of water annually, in addition to the massive energy savings.

Influencing the partner and supplier ecosystem
Several industries work closely with the agricultural sector, which would be either a supplier, partner or customer. Therefore, there is a clear opportunity to create awareness and influence the agricultural yield per drop.

For instance, if we look at the cost curve above, it’s apparent that implementing measures such as no-till farming, reduced over-irrigation, rain-fed drainage, irrigated and rain-fed fertiliser balance actually help farmers save money. Even here, the use of smart meters, real-time monitoring, and analytics can play a big role. For instance, ITC, as part of its Water Stewardship Mission works to promote crop-specific precision agronomic practices and micro-irrigation to reduce water consumption and achieve more crop per drop. These practices have helped farmers save up to 20 to 45 percent water for crops.

Influencing government policy and CSR
While companies often do their bit to further water conservation within their four walls or with their suppliers, impact at scale will only be possible with the right policy and active participation from the government. State and central governments play a huge role in pricing of water to throttle demand, equitable distribution among stakeholders, incentives to save water (and disincentives for wasting water) and building municipal infrastructure to treat and distribute water. Done right, this can have a huge impact on not just managing demand, but ensuring long term sustainability of industry, agriculture and communities. Hence, industry must also play a role in water-related policy.

Many industry-lead CSR efforts are targeted at providing pure drinking water to villages or building check dams. These are important but it would be far more impactful if they also chose areas that have the maximum impact based on the water availability cost curve. For example, could they drive and fund the adoption of drip irrigation? India needs more NGOs that not just do good work, but also target the right problem and the root cause of the problem.

While the world today is dealing with several threats, ranging from cyber crimes to political instability to economic downturns, the most fundamental crisis that we need to address urgently is the diminishing freshwater supply. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not the water supply that needs to be augmented, but demand that needs to be managed first. Industry, agriculture, governments, NGOs, and the society all need to work together if we hope to make a difference in water demand and create a sustainable future.

The writer is the managing director of Ecolab

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