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10 Rhymes to Remember for Sustainable Water Management

In honor of Greenbiz's 10th anniversary, I offer a few lessons learned from the last 10-plus years of promoting sustainable water management around the world.

Water has a range of important roles in the production of just about everything, yet has often been overlooked as a free resource. When you factor in the variations in local availability and the potential impacts of wastewater discharges, the topic can be complex and overwhelming.

We created the WBCSD Global Water Tool to simplify risk analysis to enable companies to take action where it is needed most. From corporate boardrooms to remote factories at the end of three-hour rides on dirt roads, I've seen how difficult it is for companies to understand water issues.

I found that chemical engineering-related explanations didn't always stick, but these memorable rules meant the most:

1. Zero is Not Always the Hero

GBX LogoWhen it comes to water: efficiency is good but total elimination of water demand or discharge can have significant negative impacts including excessive energy use or solid waste generation. I once toured a textile factory in India that recycled all of its water. It had zero liquid discharge and ½ pound of wastewater solids generated for every golf shirt made. A combination of rainwater harvesting and low impact wastewater discharge was the sustainable solution.

2. The Trends Are Not Our Friends

Predicted population growth to 9 billion people by 2050 will decrease fresh water availability and strain existing water supply and sanitation systems. The population growth is predicted to be in developing countries which will also be industrializing as they improve their living standards. This will be a double demand stress on fresh water supply and should be factored in to business strategies for plant siting and product development and marketing.

3. Steady State is Out of Date

Without a doubt, there will be more drought. The projected impacts of climate change include decreased precipitation, increased floods and reduced natural storage in snowpack. This increased variability in water supply will put stress on existing systems and infrastructure which have been designed based on steadier flows. Design of new systems must be able to handle a greater range of operating conditions.

4. If You Treasure It, You'll Measure It

Everyone knows that "what gets measured, gets managed." But a surprisingly small number of companies report their fresh water consumption. If you want to achieve sustainable water management, start by measuring it. If you want to prove it to stakeholders, report it.

5. Focus on the Size of the Prize

There's usually a finite amount of labor, budget and time to make progress on water performance. From data collection to efficiency improvements to discharge reductions, pay attention to the big streams because the economies of scale rule the pool.

6. Map It Before You Tap It

Every business requires some amount of water to operate. While water may not be a primary feedstock, I've seen the lack of it shut down businesses that thought they didn't have to worry about water. Before you site a new plant or expand an operation, check out the available water resources, population trends and competing users. (The WBCSD Global Water Tool can help).

7. Wasted Crops are Wasted Drops

Agricultural products are virtual water products through the amount of water it takes to grow and process them. The Economist cited reports last November that 25-30 percent of food that is bought is wasted in rich countries. Crops lost in supply chains and food wasted in cafeterias cause needless wastes of water and carbon emissions. Waste not, warm not.

8. Save a Watt, Save a Lot

It takes water to make most types of energy. Low carbon energy (including carbon capture and storage) can be highly water intensive if designed without consideration of water demands. Conserving energy conserves water – and the reverse is true, too.

9. Water Seems Free, Until It Ceases to Be

Setting a price or value on water is often debated and suggested as a way to encourage sustainable water management. Yet the reality is that the cost curve for water is inelastic and defies standard economic planning. Water is a low cost feedstock until it's gone. Then its worth skyrockets because there is rarely an easy option to using water for cooling, cleaning and all of its other critical purposes derived from its unique qualities.

10. Take Action to Get Traction

Progress towards sustainable water management is ultimately a local issue that takes efforts on the ground to make real. A corporate-driven public relations campaign on water policies will backfire without authentic performance because water is a resource shared with fenceline stakeholders and transparency is inevitable.

Jan Dell is vice president of energy services at CH2M Hill.
 Photos CC-licensed by Flickr users Perrimoon and rich115.

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