High water consumption industries need to play a proactive role in reducing their water footprints to brace for future shortfalls

From the outside there is hardly anything noticeable at the Upper Doab Sugar Mills in Shamli, one of the oldest sugar mills in the region located about 100 km from the Capital. That it crushes over 6,500 tonnes of sugarcane during peak season and is in the ‘sweet’ business for little over 75 years doesn’t shake the world any bit. What sets it apart, however, is its newfound wisdom of reducing its water consumption by as much as 30 per cent, or an estimated 5,000 kilolitres of saving on a daily basis. Convert this into power consumed for pumping and lifting water, the gain is substantial not only for the company but also for its stressed groundwater sources.

Unprecedented drought in parts of Maharashtra has brought the sugar industry into limelight, and for all the wrong reasons. Sugar mills consume large quantities of water, not only in their manufacturing process, but also indirectly in sugarcane production as part of their supply chain. Research has shown that if 85 per cent of water contained in sugarcane is harnessed, the need for additional water supply could be eliminated. After conducting detailed water audit, the Upper Doab Mills has taken the first step to close the loop of sugar manufacturing by installing cut-off valves to reduce water wastage and by recycling water from the molasses cooling tower.

“The mill has moved to the ‘progressive’ level in the three-stage ladder of water stewardship,” says Suresh Babu, director of water policy at the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Delhi. Having handheld the sugar mill on its water stewardship journey, WWF has developed a framework for businesses to minimise their impact on water by collaborating with stakeholders in the supply chain. With the industrial demand for water expected to increase four-fold over next the three decades when not only major river basins will become water-stressed but groundwater sources will shrink further, businesses face the ‘risk’ of running against other competing demands.

Increasing agriculture and domestic demand for water will shift allocation priority away from industry. Consequently, a shortfall of 17 per cent in industrial water supply is expected during the next decade. Unless the industry braces the challenge of cutting down on its water consumption alongside concurrent reduction in discharging untreated wastewater, it is likely to face the physical, regulatory and reputational risks. While sugar industry faces physical risk of water shortages, textile and paper industries face the stringent regulatory risk on untreated effluents. Thermal and beverage industries, on the other hand, have huge reputational risk to confront.

Add to it a growing demand to reserve water for ecology and the business risk to industry operating in water-scarce and water-stressed areas multiplies several fold. According to WWF, industries are yet to adequately assess water-related risks and its implications. The risks are indeed manifold: farmers in Pali have been protesting against the textile industry for discharging polluted water; a sugar mill in Kolhapur had to close down under regulatory instructions by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board; and a steel plant in Bhilai had to seek government intervention for release of more water for its cooling systems.

A recent research on ‘Water Stewardship for Industries’, jointly conducted by WWF and Accenture, studied six relatively higher water consumption industries — thermal power generation, pulp and paper, textiles, steel, sugar and beverages — to understand risks and opportunities arising out of their water footprints. The findings suggest that while sugar, beverage, pulp and paper sectors had a higher risk perception, as they had already encountered physical, regulatory and reputational risks, sectors such as thermal and steel have a low risk perception on account of committed water allocation from local/Central governments. 

Given the dramatically rising water demand, estimated to touch a whopping 833 cubic kilometers in 2025, on account of increasing population, rapid urbanisation and a growing economy, the industry would need to play a proactive role in reducing its water footprints. With India’s per capita availability of water alarmingly reducing from 1,816 to 1,545 cubic meters for the period of 2001 to 2011, there is every reason that textile sector’s consumption of 25 billion cubic meters of water, most of which is exported in the form of textiles, gets questioned. Not without reason had 700 textile units in Tirupur closed down in Feb 2011.

The study provides clear evidence that while water related risks for industry are severe, the opportunity to derive value from addressing these risks through the water stewardship framework is equally significant.

(The writer is with the Ecological Foundation)

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