Renewing the pledge for sustainable water management

Take a look at the pursuit of sustainability spearheaded by Indian industries, leading to clean and abundant water for all.

It is truly an exciting time for those of us with a "green" outlook. The last few years have seen an unprecedented focus on sustainable living: be it more news and educational content that builds awareness; citizen-led initiatives and NGOs; businesses stepping forward to adopt sustainable energy and sustainable practices; and even governments, politicians and bureaucrats putting aside accelerated development to do the right thing for the environment, and in doing so, for humanity itself. It's a really, really good start!

The most heartening examples are the Paris Agreement (where countries voluntarily committed themselves to Nationally Determined Contributions) and the UN initiated Sustainable Development Goals. India has set some pretty aggressive targets for cleaner air and better land use under the Paris Agreement NDCs; and looking at current policies, it seems we are well on our way to achieving these contributions ahead of schedule. If all goes as planned, we will be the model for the developing world to follow, by being the first to bring together economic growth with ecological health!

On the surface, this is great news. However, it leaves out one very important area of focus: Water.

The World Economic Forum report has highlighted water as the top risk in terms of impact. In India, the per capita availability of water has declined by over 60% (from 3000 cubic metres to 1123) over the last 50 years. To put this into perspective, the global average is 6000 cubic metres per capita.

With increasing population, industry and agriculture, the demand for water is only expected to rise. The aquifers however, are not. By 2050, the average water demand per capita is expected to be 1,447 cu.m; higher than the availability we have today. This is scary. Particularly in cities, where the demand is 3 times that of rural demand. Already, Delhi and Chennai are fed with water supply lines that span hundreds of kilometres.

It's easy to think of water as a renewable resource, especially for those of us who live along the coast where it rains heavily during the monsoons. After all, each year we hear of flooding somewhere and the cost of water in cities is really, really low. For most of us, the water bill isn't a deterrent to wasting water. So it's easy to assume that it isn't a problem. Let's rectify that here.

For the water table to fill back up, water needs to stand and drain downwards through layers of soil and rock, to reach the water table that provides us groundwater. In our tarred and cemented cities, these spaces are limited to parks and green lungs. In rural areas where agriculture is the mainstay, traditional farming practices don't address this new challenge. In all our history, we've never had to worry about groundwater replenishment! Watershed management is new to farmers, and adoption is still low.

The same thing goes for rivers as most of our rivers depend on rains and glacial melt as their water source. The rate at which we are consuming our rivers, far outstrips the rate of replenishment. Case in point: the Kaveri river. What used to be a mighty Kaveri, is now a ghost of its glorious past. And it is not the only one.

The only tenable solution we have then is conservation and recycling: if we can't replenish the source, let's at least diminish the rate at which we consume. While as individuals, we can contribute immensely to conservation; the real change will come from manufacturing industries. After all, in the larger scheme of things, it is industry that plays a pivotal role in increased demand for water, as well as water pollution. An entire city may switch to eco-friendly detergents and non-chemical cleaning products in homes, but the impact will still pale before a steel plant going the Zero Liquid Discharge way!

Sustainable Development Goal target 6.3 requires that by 2030 we "improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally." It makes sense, as less polluted water takes fewer resources to recycle safely. Progress towards this target will also help achieve the SDGs on sustainable consumption and production pattern (SDG 12), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), safe water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), life below water (SDG 14), and life on land (SDG 15). One target, many desirable outcomes!

Which is why it is so important to talk about what Tata Steel is doing. Steelmaking requires large quantities of water, which often comes from rivers. In fact, this is why most steel plants are located beside rivers as it's difficult to meet their water needs further inland. Steelmaking also involves processes that result in highly contaminated water, which is then often released into the same rivers as effluents; causing any cities downstream to spend enormous resources in making the water suitable for human consumption.

Tata Steel, however, uses their 4R methodology to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recharge their water supply. In order to reduce freshwater consumption, they conform to a water audit and have real-time, online monitoring. By reusing drain water for low-end applications like coke quenching, blast furnace quenching, dust suppression, tyre washing and pellet and sinter cooling, they reduce their consumption of freshwater considerably. Recycling happens at the Central Effluent Treatment Plant and the output is clarified water. Recharging is done via aggressive rainwater harvesting measures, which allows rainwater to do what nature designed it for! In fact, Tata Steel had commissioned the creation of the Dimna Lake in Jamshedpur as a catchment area in the rainy season. Today, it has the holding capacity of 6,292 million gallons of water. A store large enough to supply 14% of Jamshedpur's annual water demand!

In sum, the 4R methodology has helped Tata Steel in reducing its overall freshwater consumption by almost 35% over the last five years! The flagship steel plant in Jamshedpur consumes the same amount of water as it did when it had just half the steel producing capacity compared to today. And their efforts continue to bring further improvements. It will be interesting to see what other benchmarks Tata Steel is able to set in the coming years.

This makes for great news not just because of what they've accomplished; but what it means to others in the field. Tata Steel has shown that it is economically viable to be ecologically sustainable. They are continuing to invest and experiment further, to get to a state of Zero Liquid Discharge. They're also looking for viable substitutes for freshwater, even exploring possibilities with municipal wastewater. Needless to say, we're watching them eagerly to see how this develops! After all, sustainability is no longer about the environment alone, it is about economic survival too. Businesses of the future understand this, even if businesses of today may not.

- In collaboration with Firstpost

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