Aug 17, 2022 Sabine Boston and Dieter Adam
For millions of people around the world – for industry, agriculture, and households – the ever-increasing shortage of water is not only a seasonal challenge, but a daily issue. According to UNICEF, around 2.2 billion people in the world have no regular access to clean water, around 785 million people lack a basic supply of drinking water – and the need is growing. Within 100 years the world’s population has increased almost tenfold. Then, as now, agriculture swallowed 70 percent of the available freshwater and industry needs about 20 percent. It’s anticipated that dry periods are going to increase in the future, so these sectors must begin to look at how they can innovate their processes.
When we look to industry, we can see even at a glance how much water is needed. A well-filled cup of coffee may hardly contain more than 250 millilitres, but all in all it takes up to 140 litres of water to grow, process, transport and refine the necessary coffee beans, writes Dieter Gerten, professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in his book “Wasser”.
The need for water is high but there is also great potential for savings by closing cycles in production and recycling water where possible.
An example of innovation when it comes to water conservation in industry is the ceramics industry in Germany. The industry uses water sparingly, if only for economic reasons, says Christoph René Holler, Managing Director of the German Ceramics Industry Association. A focus was placed on the treatment of wastewater, the use of which enables recycling rates of 50 to 70 per cent. “With new plants, even higher rates are achievable.” Rainwater treatment and a switch from heat drying to condensation drying, in which the expelled water can be returned to the process, are also ways to save water. Another process explored is in a ceramics plant in Austria, where a service water tank has been in place since last year to store water. This saves around 40 per cent of the drinking water that would otherwise be required.
When looking at the steel industry, companies have also found ways to try and reduce/reuse their water consumption. Despite using water in the hundreds of millions of cubic meters, steelworks usually work with almost closed systems for cooling. In these systems, the water is treated up to forty times and returned to the cycle. This treatment means that regardless of using such large quantities of water in operations day to day, very little new water is being introduced into the cycle to compensate for steam losses and wastewater discharge.
In the semi-conductor industry, the amount of water needed is massive, but the majority of our lives revolve around chips, and demand is ever-growing. Intel, one of the three big chip manufacturers, uses as much water as a metropolis of millions in its more than a dozen factories a year, according to its own figures. Since it is such a precious resource, the company, like almost all chip producers, has invested heavily in treatment plants and created an almost closed water cycle. The semiconductor industry needs an average of up to 34 litres of water to produce a single chip. According to a recent study by Stanford University, semi-conductor manufacturers use about 20 billion cubic metres of water each year. And the threats to the industry from drought were illustrated last year, when a rainfall deficit of 22% in Taiwan forced the government to cut water consumption by 15%, forcing the world’s largest chipmaker, TSMC, to spend an additional €24m on trucking in supplementary water to maintain production; the company uses more than 150,000 tons of water every day.
As for the food industry, it is a large consumer of water as well, and drinking-water quality at that. It’s estimated that the production of a kilogram of cheese requires 4,900 liters of water, for example. This means that water scarcity is an issue the industry really needs to focus on – sufficient availability of water isn’t guaranteed in the long term.
In New Zealand, we may not perceive water shortages as a threat to manufacturing, but expert predictions indicate longer and more severe periods of drought in the future: “Drought severity is projected to increase in most areas of the country, except for Taranaki-Manawatu, West Coast and Southland. Drought intensity, as measured by potential evapotranspiration deficit, is projected to increase in magnitude with increased greenhouse gas emissions … and time period. The strongest increases are projected to be over the northern and eastern North Island and in the lee of the main divide over the South Island, …”
The point is that we live in an increasingly resource-constrained world – growing population numbers and economic activity lead to increasing demand for natural resources. At the same time, the need to combat climate change and reduce environmental degradation will increasingly put constraints on our ability to emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants. On top of that, extreme weather events will also put constraints on manufacturing activities at times, and in irregular occurrence, as witnessed in the TSMC example above.
For individual manufacturers, that means additional complexity and cost in terms of planning and preparation. For our government, it means designing an economic development policy aiming at securing future wealth at the lowest environmental cost possible, and supporting different sectors of the economy accordingly. When it comes to that, manufacturing – especially of high-value-added products and associated services – can put its hand up as a very promising option.