Q&A: Water Scarcity, Data Management & One Water
With water scarcity and drought issues increasingly on the rise, businesses must stay ahead of the curve through smart water management. WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello asked Emilio Tenuta, senior vice president of corporate sustainability for Ecolab, about the impacts of water scarcity, barriers to efficient water management and the role of data.
Who Should be Concerned About the Impacts of Water Scarcity?
Lauren Del Ciello: Who should be concerned about the impacts of water scarcity and improving water footprints? I know this is not an exclusively western issue.
Emilio Tenuta: Without sounding too alarmist, I think everyone should be concerned about water scarcity, as it can impact each of us in different ways. We may experience water stress through a lack of available drinking water or public health challenges in some areas. Because climate change will continue to exacerbate water scarcity, many of us may experience water stress through extreme weather such as droughts, flooding, and heat waves.
But to answer your question more specifically, water stress will pose a particular challenge for industry. Whether helping power production lines or keeping data centers running, water is essential to every industry, but our demand is on its way to outstripping supply. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the world will experience a 56% freshwater shortfall by 2030 if nothing changes, an increase from the 40% shortfall projected by the U.N. in 2015.
Companies face several risks associated with water stress, which was underlined in the recent IPPC report on climate. Those risks could be financial: according to data from 357 companies surveyed in CDP’s Global Water Report 2020 the total potential financial impact of reported water risks in 2020 was up to $301 billion. The risks could be physical, such as disrupted supply chain operations or stranded assets. Or they could be reputational, like when companies are criticized for taking more than their fair share of water within a water-stressed community.
What Are Barriers to Water Management?
Del Ciello: What are barriers to efficient water management? What barriers are exacerbated by water scarce regions?
Tenuta: One common mistake or barrier we see is organizations defining the value of water based on the cost of their water bill. Water is typically undervalued, and prices do not reflect the true cost of water, which includes the operational, reputational, and regulatory risks associated with water in your region — in addition to the utility costs.
We also see organizations or companies trying to adopt a one-size fits all approach to setting water goals across their operations. This sets certain locations up to fail: It is a lot harder to hit an aggressive water target when you are producing a water-intensive product in a water-scarce region. To really drive collective water reduction at the enterprise level, organizations need to set localized goals for individual facilities.
How Can Water Users Take Action?
Del Ciello: How can facilities and water users take action to avoid water-related risks and advance sustainability goals?
Tenuta: The best plans are ones that are informed by data and employ measurement practices, so there is a benchmark, helping inform where we can go and how we can optimize over time. That is why Ecolab developed a free, publicly available online tool called the Ecolab Smart Water Navigator. The tool helps users activate smart water management practices by:
- Identifying the cost of water risk in your organization, to gain a more holistic understanding of how water is being managed across facilities and at specific facility sites;
- Setting meaningful targets based on local conditions that enable a specific facility to meet its operational needs without contributing to water stress in the surrounding community;
- Implementing the actions needed to deliver reduction targets that align with industry recommendations; and
- Tracking performance over time to document progress against goals and continuously reassess operations for new risks and growth opportunities.
Why is Data Management Critical?
Del Ciello: Why is data management critical in implementing and tracking water management efficiency improvements?
Tenuta: You cannot employ solutions without understanding your challenges. That is why data, tracking and measurement are so important to improving water use. Water treatment systems are particularly dynamic and complex, and companies may not track water performance and progress because the manual data collection and analysis process is often tedious, resource-intensive, and difficult to execute consistently across sites. By employing solutions that provide greater visibility into water use across operations, like Ecolab’s Water Flow Intelligence, which uses monitoring and alarm notifications, companies can pinpoint inefficiencies in real-time and make immediate improvements. This leads to real progress on water-related goals, both at the local and enterprise level.
How Can One Water Play a Role?
Del Ciello: How can One Water principles play a role in sustainable water management?
Tenuta: The One Water approach outlined by the US Water Alliance, whose goal is to advance policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all, provides a framework for organizations to understand the interconnected elements that go into a successful water management plan. The perspective One Water follows is that all water has value and should be managed in a sustainable, inclusive, and integrated way. There are a lot of factors to balance, but it is important to consider the relationship between context-based local goals and watershed health, the value of partnerships in driving collective progress and the ripple effects that water has on an organization’s operations, economic and brand health.