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Fixing the manufacturing and water scarcity problem

Fixing the manufacturing and water scarcity problem

To sustainably create jobs and drive economic growth, manufacturers operating in water stressed locations will need to adopt a fresh approach.

Flatter growth in traditional markets, such as Europe and North America, following the financial crises, saw many manufacturers identify the emerging regions of Africa, SE Asia and South America as regions for growth. This sluggish performance, coupled with significant population growth and rising affluence in emerging regions, has given manufacturers a new set of drivers for focusing on developing economies.

It is, however, a cruel irony that the communities in the regions with the largest predicted population growth, that will drive future economic growth, are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For manufacturers, the potential for climate change brings with it the increased risk for disruption along the entire supply chain – from raw material inputs through to distribution. This risk is most acute in water stressed regions.

This irony extends to the fact that in many emerging regions, the development of manufacturing facilities, a proven pathway to creating the jobs needed for prosperity in these regions, takes place in water stressed environments and water is a key utility input to these facilities.

The true magnitude of the problem becomes evident when you consider the following:

  • The manufacturing industry accounts for 16 per cent of global water demand, rising to 22 per cent by 20301.
  • Food and beverage facilities and fast moving consumer goods are the largest users.
  • Add to this the 70 per cent used in agri-business – for irrigation that supplies these food and beverage facilities – and then superimpose the predicted population increase in the emerging regions.

What emerges is that we need new ways of achieving sustainable manufacturing that are symbiotic with the needs of the community and the needs of the environment.

This inexorable inter-linkage between economic growth and the resultant potential climate deterioration is the paradox that confronts manufacturers.

"The challenge of developing much needed manufacturing facilities economically and sustainably in some of the most water stressed locations of the world therefore demands a new approach".

Manufacturing and water scarcityThat the enormity of this problem is beyond the resources or responsibility of any one organisation fuels the risk of complacency. It is essential to guard against this.

A robust approach would typically consider moral, social, commercial and economic domains in assessing any manufacturing facility development. But a balanced scorecard simply does not reflect the gravity of the challenge. The real need is for an unbalanced scorecard; more heavily weighted to water use and water management.

This article provides an introduction to reframing the thinking around combining a philosophical approach to developing manufacturing facilities in water stressed environments, with sophisticated planning and engineering. The discussion focuses on how the application of this combination would contribute to a solution that all global organisations could adopt.

Water is critical

In our connected world, we are more conscious of the interconnected and interdependent nature of all things. We now see more acutely the linkage between cause and effect. For instance, we now recognise that water is central to food security.

Statics from the World Economic Forum show that it takes up to one litre of water to produce one calorie from plant and grains, and up to 10 litres for one calorie of meat. We each therefore eat the equivalent of 3 500–6 000 litres of water daily.

In emerging regions, people are still desperately in need of nutritional food. In Africa, one of the most water stressed countries in the world, predictions are for a further 500 million people in the next 10–15 years. The impact on water systems and agricultural food production is therefore profound.

A number of reports on African climate change trends and projections show that the climate in many African regions has been heating up over the last decade. Predictions are this will continue if climate models for a warming climate are accurate.

"As responsible corporate citizens, global businesses do need to take a worldwide view of the water problem".

A global view

There are many drivers to adopt the strategies enunciated for developing in water stressed locations in emerging regions. Reality is that many organisations already own and operate facilities in developed regions where water shortage is not an issue. Nonetheless, even in these locations, the need remains to vigorously pursue water conservation techniques.

Even where water is plentiful, the minimisation of water use creates less impost on infrastructure. Pumping, filtration or treatment systems, unless powered from renewable sources, all displace carbon, and carbon displacement and its consequences are independent of location. Hence, global organisations need to adopt stringent philosophies no matter their location.

Site selection

One of the most basic and effective methods for developing in water stressed locations is rigorous site selection, particularly in developing countries where industrial development guidelines might be immature or non-existent.

When developing a new manufacturing facility in an emerging region an obvious first step is the selection and procurement of a site. Optimum site selection considerations include proximity to transport networks, cost, land remediation, planning approvals, and site services. Typically these are assessed and some form of evaluation matrix established. Oftentimes a simplistic approach of deducing each parameter down to a cost impact, or for more enlightened organisations, a triple bottom line, may be used.

However, the evaluation criteria traditionally accepted in other parts of the world do not reflect the criticality of the issue in emerging water stressed regions. In these regions, proximity to water sources, or the impact of upgrading water infrastructure, need to adopt a top priority. This unique environment requires the gearing of decisions for site selection towards the availability of water in favour of other parameters – such as proximity to transport networks or cost.

Another reframing approach would be the philosophy of locating a facility near other users of energy, water or raw materials, where co-location and co-use could lessen each user’s overall demand. To creatively and selectively seek out partners, who in some instances might even be competitors, and use infrastructure resources as efficiently as possible, may be counter-intuitive in a commercial sense; still, it could be a better way forward. Synchronising load profile and work patterns to optimise benefits from differing hours of operation, or differing cycles over time, could make sense, similarly, the notion of one manufacturer using another’s waste as an input utility.

Ensuring continuous peak optimisation takes detailed and sophisticated modelling as well as advanced operational and controls systems.

It is also important to recognise that business and development are dynamic. Over time there is the creation of more development and manufacturing facilities. As that occurs, constantly looking for symbiotic partners is the approach to take. Indeed, taking the audacious step to invite partners to join in the use of resources and benefit from specific waste heat, waste energy or waste water streams should be a creative and responsible philosophy adopted.

Predictive water balance modelling is a tool that assists in this process

Predictive water modelling enables the inputting of detailed meteorological data into a water modelling programme that can predict rainfall patterns over the short term. As opposed to reliance on average historical rainfall data, predictive rainfall modelling allows the implementation of more efficient operational water management regimes; such as decreasing onsite storage levels in anticipation of certain weather events to minimise overflow and run off, thereby taking a more granular and scientific approach to near–time site water management. Remote mine sites have extensively deployed these techniques in managing water resources. They can be easily adapted into water management for manufacturing facilities in water stressed environments.

Process optimisation

To operate sustainably in water stressed environments, manufacturers must rethink their process design choices to extend beyond the implementation of best practice designs

There is a need for a critical review of the overall operation of each facility, with a focus on both water efficiency as well as other utilities that may affect water usage.

For example, in certain applications, the use of superheated steam for drying results in a lower grade steam, which can be reused for other low pressure steam demands in the factory. Overall this uses less steam, requires less water and simultaneously improves energy efficiency.

Many such cases already exist or are feasible if industries leverage technology between them. Intra-industry benchmarking is essential to achieve best practice. But, inter-industry information sharing is essential for developing innovative solutions.

"History has shown repeatedly that necessity is the mother of invention".

Process optimisation too should go beyond just optimising production and minimising use of utilities. Cooperation between manufacturing personnel as well as suppliers and customers provides opportunity for water management at a supply chain level.

Questions for manufacturers to consider range from, is it viable to substitute more water efficient raw materials for current raw materials to what does the client actually do with the product, like is there a need for a powdered dry product if the first thing the client does is dissolve it for further processing?

Technology advances

Technology is also contributing to the solution. A case in point is the beverage industry, where more efficient bottle washers and pasteurizers, which consume less water, are replacing the current heavy users.

Additionally, it is conceivable to cut back heavy water usage during clean-in-place (CIP) processes by designing the processes to accommodate electrochemical activation (ECA) of water, instead of the traditional five per cent caustic that is followed by a water flush. ECA for CIP processes has demonstrated up to 60 per cent reduced water consumption.

Other areas of advancement include new membrane technology in water treatment that is now available at more economic levels, which displaces the use of chemicals. Whilst still at demonstration level, forward osmosis techniques are now challenging reverse osmosis techniques. This has potential to further enhance the availability of water treatment process due to its lower energy consumption requirement. Similarly, UV light is replacing treatment with chlorine in disinfection processes.

In the dairy industry, we are seeing developments that increase the efficiency and yield of lactose evaporators, improving their acceptable operating interval before CIP, and in turn reducing water use.

The lactose evaporator developed jointly by Aurecon and Fonterra is a good example. Evaporator cleaning can reduce plant availability by up to three hours a day. The new evaporation system design reduces the number of CIP regimes required per unit of lactose production. The Hautapu facility in New Zealand delivered run times in excess of two weeks on the new evaporator, dramatically reducing the amount of water and chemicals used and simultaneously increasing lactose yield.

Better controls and metering devices, coupled with sophisticated water management and plant production management software, allow real-time monitoring of water use and water loss, relative to production efficiency, leading to enhanced management.

Rethinking heat rejection techniques – looking to use ground sourced heat rejection techniques to replace water hungry cooling towers – is another area worthy of investigation.

New technologies are continually evolving, many of which are worth exploring further. Water management requires a holistic approach. Looking at water as a precious asset through all the stages – from site assessment, moving upstream into the supply chain and the raw material stage, through production to distribution and recycling of waste water or perhaps reuse and donation of that waste to a complimentary business.

"Reuse, rethink, be smart"

Being smart around the reuse of waste water streams, appropriately channelled toward fit for purpose uses, must also be part of the solution.

As an example, the majority of manufacturing facilities receive a single ‘class A’ potable water supply. This grade of water is essential for some functions in the manufacturing process. Still, there will be many other activities, such as wash down or flushing, that do not need this grade of water. Resourcefully looking at all water consumption activities would help achieve a far more efficient approach to water management and facility design.

This includes:

  • assessing the grade, quality and volume of water that is fit for purpose and needed for each activity;
  • contrasting and balancing these assessments against the possible levels of waste water resulting as a by-product of the process; and
  • then matching these against each other.

Most processes will modulate through operation cycles, consuming water and discharging waste at different levels at different times of the day. Analysing these cycles and integrating them would allow incorporation of multiple storage vessels of different grades of water in to the facility design.

Coupling the management of water storage devices with predictive water modelling techniques, may open the door to reach new levels of water efficiency management.


Engineering offers many opportunities and approaches in designing facilities that are water efficient. Albeit, engineering alone does not provide the answer.

A philosophical shift is the starting point from which to holistically look at site planning and location through a new lens.

Couple this with a new view to collaboration and symbiotic operation with adjoining neighbours that is dynamic and ever present.

This three pronged approach provides the greatest opportunity to ameliorate the effects that impact on every manufacturer and every community, irrespective of their location.

About the Authors

John McGuire, Nick Quinn, Julian Briggs, Louis Koen, Saskia Kempener.


1. “Charting our water future”, (2030 Water Resources Group, 2009).

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