The shape of water: Is the world ready for day zero?
The rules of the game have changed. Globalization is under threat from protectionism. Climate change is knocking at our doors. If we don’t change our ways now, we may soon change from onlookers to agitators demanding our share of water to live our lives. Think of Mad Max Fury Road —taps drying up, water rationing and everyone queuing up to collect water from taps which are guarded by armed personnel. We are staring at this reality, an event termed as Day Zero.
For South Africa’s Cape Town, Day Zero could happen as early as July. The clock is also ticking for some of India’s largest cities like Delhi and Bangalore. Due to climate change, wetter regions are becoming wetter, and drier regions are becoming even drier. Today, one in nine people lack access to safe water; one in three people lack access to a toilet. More people have a mobile phone than a toilet, according to water.org. We can change this.
One way is by consuming less. Cape Town has reduced its consumption of water from an estimated 1.1 billion litres a day in 2016 to 586 million litres daily.
For corporates, it requires rethinking their water costs. Often, water is considered just a nominal cost. Cutting its usage then has hardly any benefits. However, thinking about the importance of water at different points on their supply chain will change the picture. Water as a carrier of production inputs and outputs may see its utility cost increase over 100 times. If treated accordingly, companies can reduce their water usage and even bring down their total operating costs, a 2013 McKinsey Quarterly publication said.
Some of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods manufacturers Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Unilever Plc are working on developing products that consume less energy and water. Every day products used for laundry, household cleaning, skin cleansing and haircare account for a large part of the consumer element of their water footprint. Unilever has made global commitments to halve water associated with the consumer use of its products by 2020. About 38% of Unilever’s water footprint comes from the laundry process and a significant proportion of this is washing laundry by hand in the developing world, according to Unilever’s own analysis. This has led to the development of a patented technology -smart foam, which cuts foam after cleaning at the rinse stage enabling customers to use less water for the maker of Surf detergents and Dove soaps. Such products make sense for countries like India. The launch of a variant of Rin using the smart foam technology a year ago in some Indian states saw its sales spike and more so in the in water-stressed regions in Maharashtra.
P&G, the maker of Tide and Ariel, has developed its own technologies and is working on energy-efficient products. According to a study by the UK-based Energy Saving Trust, washing at 30 degrees temperature can be up to 57% more efficient than washing at 40 degrees. In UK, P&G has products that can perform superior cleaning at temperatures as low as 20 degrees.
Meanwhile, the Japanese have also figured a way to conserve water when we use the toilet. Toto, the only washlet brand probably to have its own toilet museum has developed products that has brought down the consumption of water for a single flush to 3.8 litres from 13 litres in the initial years.
But even this is insufficient. If Day Zero happens in Cape Town, usage of water from about 50 litres per person currently will be reduced to 25 litres, for which people will have to queue at 200 standpipes manned by armed guards.
What we need to do is to move towards circular economy. Circular means to look beyond the current ‘take, make and dispose’ cycle we follow. It also goes beyond recycle, upcyle, repair, refurbish or re-use of products. For manufacturers, it means redefining the entire product, its utility and lifecycle starting from manufacturing to ending at a waste-fill. It also means to give back, replenish and rejuvenate our environmental systems.
Today, almost three-quarters of the world’s waste ends up in landfills, imposing enormous environmental costs and squandering opportunities to extract value through recycling and reuse. In cities like Bengaluru, which uses only half of its waste treatment capacity, a substantial amount of waste then makes its ways to the already fast depleting waterbodies.
Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. have over the last decade initiated projects that look at ground water replenishment. At Coca-Cola, the company has also improved its water usage ratio, which is calculated as the total water used divided by total beverage produced to 1.97 which is a 23% improvement since 2010.
However, these are incremental improvements. What we need is for Elon Musk to save our earth as instead of trying to colonise Mars.
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