For decades, the Dow plant in Tarragona, Spain, withdrew freshwater for its cooling towers from the Ebro, one of the country’s most important rivers (Figure 1). However, as economic and population growth raised demand for the Ebro’s water, leaders at the Dow plant set an ambitious goal: free up freshwater for other users by operating the facility’s cooling towers with as much as 90% reclaimed municipal water.
After ensuring the cooling towers could operate efficiently with treated wastewater, the plant was able to cut its withdrawal by 19%. The drop varies with season but, overall, the plant saves 278 million gal/yr of river water, equivalent to the average daily water use of 25,157 citizens.
The Dow Tarragona plant is not alone in its ambition to reduce freshwater dependence. Increasingly, manufacturers across all sectors, including water-thirsty chemical processors, recognize the urgency to act. They may have seen the latest projection from the World Resources Institute (WRI), Washington, D.C., of a 56% global shortfall in freshwater supply within the decade or “A Wave of Change — The role of companies in building a water-secure world,” the recently released water report from CDP, London, that stresses the need for ambitious action by industry. (For details on the latter, see: “Report Dives into Water Security.") And they may have experienced water scarcity, whether caused by overusing water, a changing climate or increasing pollution. Whatever the reason, a growing number of companies are setting ambitious internal water-conservation goals.
That’s good news. Changes in how industry uses water could enormously impact our world’s water crisis: on average, industry uses 20% of the freshwater consumed globally and almost 60% in developed countries. However, despite their good intentions and initial efforts, companies worldwide and in the U.S. actually increased their demand for water by 20% between 2015 and 2018. Industry, if it is to do its part to close the projected 2030 supply/demand gap, will need to do much more.
It’s not that companies lack the will. In a January 2021 survey of businesses with revenues of $1 billion or more conducted by Ecolab and GreenBiz, 92% — up from 88% in 2019 — said they are likely to take steps to better manage water in the next two years. However, the survey identified a quandary that often stymies water management improvements: corporate leaders typically set water reduction targets but facility managers are made responsible for meeting them. Yet, the plant manager’s ability to improve water management often hinges on building a solid business case for corporate investment in individual water projects. Creating the business case is difficult, though, because water typically is underpriced — the plant’s water bill does not reflect water’s true economic value to operations. Further complicating such situations, facility leaders often lack the methodologies, tools and expertise to make the financial case for water management improvements or to meet water reduction targets.
Would taking a more holistic approach to water management — one that accounts for a range of factors, including the full value of water, opportunities for water saving within the plant, and watershed demand, supply and quality — help companies attain water reduction goals and build resilience to weather unpredictable water challenges ahead?
A growing number of manufacturers — including some chemical processors — are testing such an approach, variously called a “water stewardship” or “water management” strategy. Comprehensive in nature, it marks a major shift from simply managing water to satisfy environmental regulations or achieve reduction targets. True water stewardship involves lowering water use internally and collaborating with other water basin stakeholders to ensure water is available to meet all needs and support vital ecosystems. It also involves encouraging effective water management across supply chains, which, when successful, can significantly lower the total corporate water footprint. (For a broader look at chemical makers’ sustainability efforts across their supply chains, see: “Sustainability Efforts Link Supply Chain.”)
The economics clearly demonstrate why companies should adopt an effective water stewardship strategy. In its “Global Water Report 2020,” CDP, a nonprofit group to which companies disclose greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and other environmental data, estimated that the manufacturing sector potentially could lose up to $191 billion in business by not addressing water risks, while taking action to avert the risks would cost $2.9 billion. In other words, not acting could be 66 times more costly than acting.
A Framework For Stewardship
Both corporate sustainability leaders and facility-level managers have important roles to play in developing and executing a water stewardship strategy.
At the corporate level, successfully implementing a water stewardship strategy requires sustainability leaders to set policy and priority — and provide local support. They must:
• Elevate water on the corporate agenda by ensuring the true risks of water scarcity are appreciated and prioritized, building broad awareness of water-related risks and making saving water part of “the way we do things around here.”
• Prioritize water initiatives and investments at facilities across the enterprise. Establishing proper priorities requires understanding the true financial impact of water-related risks to the business: “What would it cost the operation if water were rationed? If prices skyrocketed? If quality drastically deteriorated?” Realistic answers cannot come from relying on the water bill to determine these costs: in most places, water is underpriced and does not reflect water’s risk-adjusted value.
Figure 2. This publicly available online tool focuses on the four key aspects of water stewardship and enables site-specific calculation of risk.
Publicly available online tools, such as the Water Risk Monetizer feature found in Ecolab’s Smart Water Navigator (Figure 2), can help calculate the potential financial impact of declining water quantity and quality at specific plant locations. That tool — developed by Ecolab, a global leader in water technologies and services; S&P Global Trucost, a top firm in environmental data and risk analysis; and Microsoft, a major force in cloud computing technology — uses widely respected data sources such as the Aqueduct Risk Atlas of the WRI, and the Water Risk Filter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Other data partners and advisors include the CEO Water Mandate of the United Nations (U.N.) Global Compact/Pacific Institute, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS).
To arrive at the true costs of water risks, the tool uses the latest and most-comprehensive local water basin data sets as well as advanced scientific methodologies. The tool’s calculations also can help compare water-use efficiency across sites and against industry averages — information helpful in prioritizing initiatives and investments.
• Support facility leaders in developing and executing local water stewardship plans. This includes providing them with a roadmap, tools and motivation to achieve water goals within their facilities — and to connect with other stakeholders in their watersheds.
• Build broad community awareness of, and credibility in, the water stewardship efforts by aligning water reduction efforts with the recommendations of respected global environmental standards organizations, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI); Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB); and CDP, previously known as the Carbon Disclosure Project.
Setting A Local Strategy
At the plant level, leaders can develop and execute a tailored water stewardship strategy aimed at achieving water resilience for both the business and the local community. The following four steps — performable within Ecolab’s Smart Water Navigator tool — can serve as a guide for action:
1. Identify how water is being used and calculate its full value to plant operations.
• Start the water stewardship journey by benchmarking how efficiently the facility uses water against industry and organizational standards. A good way to benchmark is by completing the 13-question Water Action Assessment within the Ecolab Smart Water Navigator tool. Responses to the assessment will place the facility in one of four categories on a “water maturity” curve:
Untapped — Focus is on compliance; smart water management practices are not yet adopted.
Linear — Water conservation is a primary focus; water reduction pilots are in place.
Exploratory — Water conservation is mastered; internal piloting of recycling and reuse is underway; outreach to other watershed stakeholders is beginning.
Water smart — Water is reused and recycled internally; the many needs for water within the watershed are understood.
Once the plant is placed on the water maturity curve, facility leaders can tap into the Smart Water Navigator’s detailed checklists, resources, and business case background, designed expressly for the chemical industry. They also can find guidance on practical, actionable recommendations for advancing the facility to the next level of water maturity.
• Calculate the gap between the true costs of possible water scarcity, poor quality, rationing and other risks and the price the plant currently pays for water. A clear understanding of the potential financial impact of water risks helps prioritize projects and strengthens the business case for funding water-saving projects.
2. Set sustainable water withdrawal targets.
Water quantity and quality vary from place to place, so withdrawal targets should take into account local water conditions and water needs across the watershed. The Water Risk Monetizer contains data sets on local water conditions to establish meaningful sustainable targets.
3. Develop a plan to achieve withdrawal targets — and take actions to attain the next level of water maturity.
This involves identifying opportunities to recycle and reuse water within the facility, then applying advanced treatments and technologies to ensure recycled water achieves the level of quality needed for its next use. It also should include regular evaluations of progress toward water reduction goals as well as the return on investment (ROI) of capital expenditures for water projects, basing calculations on the full value of water, not the local water price. ROI data could support the case for further investments in water efficiency initiatives.
4. Monitor and report water stewardship results.
Water stewardship is a journey requiring continuous checking, detailing and resetting to next-level targets. So, it is essential to chart water management performance over time to show variations in incoming, outgoing and calculated consumptive water use over multiple years. Presenting the data in easy-to-grasp graphic formats will help quickly convey the interdependencies among production volume, revenue and water use. Finally, reporting water reduction results to the community will build confidence among other water basin stakeholders in the facility’s commitment.
Collaborate “Beyond The Fence”
Both corporate and site-level managers are responsible for reaching out to other stakeholders in the watershed to drive community-wide engagement — a key aspect of comprehensive water stewardship. Collective action involving business, government, residents and other water basin users is critical to understanding water needs and establishing governance, policy and best practices that will ensure continued water availability. One company alone cannot solve all watershed issues. However, one company can take the lead in building relationships leading to a successful collaborative effort dedicated to “derisking” the watershed.
For example, the Dow Tarragona facility is part of the large Tarragona Petrochemical Complex that includes plants of many chemical manufacturers. Together, these firms are engaged in a project to use reclaimed water for industrial purposes to free up freshwater for local municipal demand and reduce stress on the Ebro River.
A number of organizations provide guidance in organizing community-driven collaborative water stewardship. Among them are:
• AWS, whose International Water Stewardship Standard provides a globally consistent and locally adaptable framework designed to encourage collective approaches to sustainable freshwater use.
• The Water Resilience Coalition, an initiative of the U.N. Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, which is working to raise corporate awareness of global water stress and preserve freshwater resources through collective action.
• The CEO Water Mandate’s free online Water Action Hub, which is a global online collaboration and knowledge-sharing platform for water sustainability. It helps companies and other organizations address water risk and advance sustainable water management by raising awareness of water projects around the world and the organizations administering them, and fostering proposals for new projects and partnerships. The hub helps companies connect with relevant water partners and share good water management practices and lessons learned. Many of the site’s features complement those available in the Ecolab Smart Water Navigator.
Take Action Now
Predicting when, where or how severely water issues will impact operations may be impossible. But given WRI’s projection of a global shortfall in freshwater by 2030, we can safely predict that water issues increasingly will challenge chemical and other manufacturers. Implementing a comprehensive water stewardship strategy, one based on water’s full value to operations, can help chemical processors build the resilience they are sure to require in the face of water challenges, predicted and unpredicted.
EMILIO TENUTA is senior vice president for corporate sustainability at Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn. Email him at [email protected].
1. “State of Corporate Water Management Survey,” conducted by Ecolab and GreenBiz, January 2021.
2. “Achieving Abundance: Understanding the Cost of a Sustainable Water Future,” World Resources Institute, 2019.