India must pay attention to water use by industries

Louis Jude Selvadoray | Updated on November 06, 2019

Apart from being major consumers, industries pollute through waste-water discharge. Technologies that have helped industrial economies responsibly use water remain underutilised in India

Chennai’s recent water scarcity received wide media attention. In one respect, however, the coverage was wholly wanting. Though the city is an industrial hub, issues concerning industrial water rarely gained focus. Locally and globally, the conversation coalesced around water sourcing, conservation and reuse — but usually only with reference to the supply side and domestic consumers on the demand side.

Why is industrial water important?

Industries account for a fifth of the water the world consumes. According to the UN’s World Water Assessment Programme, “industry creates marked pressure on water resources from the impacts of waste-water discharges…than by the quantity used in actual production”. In India, every litre of waste-water industries discharge pollutes a further 5-8 litres on average, suggesting the share of industrial water could be as high as 50 per cent, according an Indian environment research organisation.

The elision of industrial water in public discourse has serious consequences for India and other nations facing acute water stress. First, it fuels misgivings in local communities, as continuing incidents of conflict illustrate. Second, technologies that have helped industrial economies responsibly use water remain underutilised in emerging economies. This weakens global efforts to mitigate water stress. Most significantly, the silence on this issue conceals the opportunity industries have, especially in an arid global economic climate, to considerably reduce costs by focussing on water-savings.

Episodes of conflict

Water is already an incendiary issue in the arc of the Global South, spanning Latin America, Africa and South Asia. At the turn of the century, Bolivia witnessed this era’s first “water war”, when protests over the privatisation of water convulsed the city of Cochabamba. The Andean nation’s economy leans heavily on the water-intensive mining industry. Spasmodically, other countries in the neighbourhood have experienced similar social tensions over water.

In India, readers will recall the wave of public protests that swept Tamil Nadu two years ago. Inadequate water allocations for farmers, and the perceived water largesse beverage companies enjoyed, was a grievance which found deep resonance with the protesters.

The Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organisation, records numerous episodes of conflict. In the last decade, tensions relating to water are on the ascendant rather than on the decline.

What governments can do

Governments seeking industrial growth to battle poverty are caught in a bind when allocating scarce water resources. This is because the policies they ply are brittle inheritances from a past with a vastly different socio-economic air. Governments urgently need to invest in data.

It will improve diagnostics and interventions, as also help re-imagine policies for emerging social orders. In fact, a data-driven approach will help governments harness natural resources equitably while pursuing industrial growth. Most importantly, it will inform debate rather than stoke conflict.

What industries can do

Investors and enterprises with an etherised view of water stress need to register the enormity of the gathering crisis. Experts warn that more than half the world will face ‘severe’ water stress by 2030. Businesses will particularly suffer shortages because water for agriculture and domestic consumption is always accorded priority. Moreover, enterprise sustainability and corporate social responsibility will hinge ever more heavily on the responsible use of water. Green regulations too are turning less forgiving, globally.

Industry associations do promote the responsible use of water amongst members. Laggards abound, nonetheless. Enterprises lax about water are usually so because they account for it with the tariff they pay at intake. But the true cost of water for an industry can be 100 times the intake tariff, if preparation, pumping, cooling, heating and discharge costs are included. Systematically adopting efficiency measures, studies show, can reduce water consumption by 30-50 per cent on average, and even up to 90 per cent in some industries.

Water efficiency is helping several businesses reduce costs and improve margins. Some of this is achieved by re-engineering processes or adopting technologies for smarter use of water. Such measures may be capital intensive. However, simple measures that do not require heavy investments, such as plugging leaks, fixing water meters and benchmarking consumption, are also yielding substantial gains.

For wider uptake, these success stories need spirited evangelisation, especially in India and across the Global South. While the region is the most vulnerable flank in the combat against the looming water crisis, it is a vast greenfield of opportunity for entrepreneurs developing water-efficient technologies. The time is well in joint for industry, governments and activists to transform the field. But if narratives relating to the water scarcity in Chennai are an indication, though the harvest is plentiful the labourers are yet few.

The writer is Communications Consultant at the World Bank Group. Views expressed are personal.

Published on November 06, 2019

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