In the UK water is generally cheap and is used liberally both in a domestic and business context. But Joe Flanagan, principal consultant sustainability at international materials technology company Ceram, warns that this situation will not last and urges manufacturers to place water usage at the heart of corporate responsibility.
Manufacturers must start paying more than lip service to reducing water usage if they want to avoid supply disruptions, escalating costs – and maybe even a water trading scheme similar to that now applied to carbon – in the near future.
Since the Government released its Water for Life white paper in December it has become obvious that insecurity in current water supplies means business as usual will soon represent a very different picture than it does today. To cope with this there must be greater emphasis on managing water demand.
Policy pressure on materials and utilities management can move fast. For proof of this, we only need to look at the issue of carbon emissions in the UK, which has moved from little more than hot air to real action in just a few years.
Carbon policy changes were triggered by a combination of energy price rises, legislation, the development of more robust corporate responsibility programmes and genuine environmental concern.
The Water for Life paper shows similar drivers for the development of a matching approach to water usage. This may lead to water footprinting of products, production facilities and supply chains in much the same way as carbon is now traced. Industry must curb its water usage now if it is to be able to cope with such a scenario.
Here and now
Water insecurity is not a hypothetical problem for future generations to deal with. Many parts of the UK are already suffering from drought and a number of water stress projections rate the South East as facing ‘extreme stress’, with annual water availability by 2020 estimated at less than 0.5 million litres per person – on a par with some areas of Africa and the Middle East.
The implications of water stress for manufacturers are far-reaching. Adequate water supplies are vital to many industrial processes and restrictions on abstraction licences and supply disruptions would cause wide ranging problems.
In addition, sectors which consume high volumes of water, such as food, drink and paper-making, would be hit with the rising cost of a vital raw material and/or restrictions on abstraction licences. Water for Life emphases the need for greater water efficiency and policy-makers envisage water suppliers becoming a more proactive change to encourage this, offering advice as a valueadd service.
This may be an optimistic assumption based on the deregulated UK energy market where price is the main driver. Energy suppliers currently offer limited energy efficiency advice to industrial consumers.
“Water for Life emphases the need for greater water efficiency and policy-makers envisage water suppliers becoming a more proactive change to encourage this, offering advice as a valueadd service.” – Joe Flanagan principal consultant sustainability at international materials technology company Ceram
Key players in this sector likely to be most affected by disruption to water supply or regulation of usage are already acting to reduce water usage as part of wider sustainability programmes. Food and drink manufacturers Coca-Cola and SABMiller, for instance, now disclose water use and are applying pressure on supply chains to do the same. Manufacturers of construction products are experiencing mounting demand for disclosure of the quantity of water associated with their ranges. In the UK, the Green Guide from the independent industry research group, BRE is the accepted assessment for sustainability of construction materials and products.
Under this scheme, products are classified according to a ranking system where A+ has the least environmental impact and E the greatest. The impacts are assessed under a whole lifecycle approach against 13 criteria – one of which is water extraction, while three relate to water pollution.
If this kind of scheme becomes applied more broadly manufacturers will need an accurate picture of water usage. They will need to know how it is used, where it is used and in what quantity. Few companies currently have this understanding.
Without this fundamental information, progress cannot be made in managing this vital resource, exposing businesses to the risks associated with price rises and supply restrictions.
Ceram has produced a White Paper on the benefits of water footprinting. To download a free copy, go to www.ceram.com.