Industries call for water conservation - Proactive disclosure on water use by industries will go a long way

This article by Romit Sen discusses some of the steps that can be undertaken by industries to conserve water

India’s rapidly growing economy is driving increased water usage across different sectors. Various estimates and projections indicate an increasing trend in water demand for agriculture, industrial and domestic uses in the coming decades. While we grapple with developing ways and means to address the problems of safe water availability, managing water quality and sustainable use of the freshwater, particularly groundwater resources, there is a debate on who should be considered most responsible for the growing water stress and whose primary responsibility is it to take measures for preserving and protecting our water resources. The normal argument will certainly be that it is the responsibility of every user to see that water is not wasted, rainwater is harvested, wastewater is recycled and reused and pollution of water is prevented.

Industrial water use has been an area of intense debate with two set of contradictory arguments presented. The first being that the overall share of water use in the industrial sector is relatively small and will continue to be so in the future, when compared to the agricultural sector. The other being the pollution of freshwater sources caused by the disposal of industrial effluents is of greater concern than the actual use.

At this point it is imperative for one to enquire into what role Indian industry sees for itself in the emerging scenario; wherein there is rapid depletion of freshwater sources coexisting with the need to sustain a growing economy. A growing economy will translate into increased intake of water for the water intensive industrial sectors like thermal power plants, steel, and textiles. Within the industrial sector, there is also a growing realisation on the need to save water for its future growth.  As a result, one comes across initiatives undertaken by several industries across different sectors. Having said that, there is a lot more that our industries can do in order to effectively manage water resources.

Disclosure on water use

Proactive disclosure on water use by industries will go a long way in bringing in a culture of decision making which accounts for the environmental costs of their decisions. Similar to the disclosure on energy use by industries, disclosure about water usage and trends across years will highlight industries commitment to conserving water. This exercise to measure and manage water use goes in hand with the popular business adage ‘what is measured gets managed’. The benefits of measuring water use and wastewater discharge will enable industries develop a water reuse, conservation and management plan.

Disclosure on water use can serve as an important piece of information for a wide range of stakeholders. For investors, it would mean that they have specific information on water use and sustainability measures so that they can divert capital flows to businesses with good water management policies. Civil society can use data to analyse the impact of industrial activity on the state of water resources. Governments would use this information in shaping national and local regulations that encourage sustainable water management.

While disclosure is important, making the right kind of information available is of greater significance. In respect of industrial water use this would mean that industries while reporting on physical use of water also indicate the sources of freshwater. The information should also indicate water related risks in respect to the local context and measures which will be put in place to reduce/ better manage water resources. At a later stage, when industries are familiar with the water use in their processes, attempts can be made to account for the water practices of their supply chain. The practice of disclosure can also be seen as a chance for the industry to highlight the impacts of the interventions on water harvesting, recharge on the state of freshwater resources in the area.

Having a plan for reduction of freshwater use would entail wastewater recycling and reuse. This would reduce the burden on freshwater usage for non-domestic and industrial operations where water quality is not an important criterion. It should be imperative for Indian industries to undertake large scale recycling and reuse methods as part of their plan to meet water requirements for present and future use.

Technology

Another aspect linked to water use is the application of better technology. There is bound to be a financial implication of such an intervention but at a time when access to freshwater is dwindling, the societal, environmental and long term economical benefits needs to be clearly understood to put forth a case for use of better technology. This will also enable our industry match global efficiency norms on water usage per unit of output generated.

In order to expand the use of technology, measures have to be taken to encourage private investments from interested groups to improve inefficiencies in water use. Simultaneously there is a need to review laws, regulations and taxes that may raise costs beyond affordable levels. For example taxation of equipment required for attaining water efficiency in industrial processes or for technologies like desalination, wastewater treatment may have a bearing on the adoption of such technologies.

As we debate over the use of water by industries, it is essential that a framework for industrial water management is put forth - both by industries themselves and the policy makers. For an industry, such a framework would reflect their commitment to undertaking measures for sustainability of water resources, while at a policy level it would lay out an operational plan and mechanism to monitor the use of water and disposal of effluents.

(The author is working as Senior Assistant Director in FICCI. The views expressed in this article are personal.)

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