INSIGHT: Focus on water highlights range of industry issues

23 March 2010 16:37  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--Some of us take our access to a plentiful supply of clean, potable water for granted. Others are more acutely aware at times of the scarcity of this most essential chemical resource.

Water use per head of population ranges from between 500 and 800 litres a day in the industrialised nations to 60 to 150 litres a day in the developing world, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The provision of more clean potable water to growing populations worldwide is a goal that requires the rallying of huge resources, financial and otherwise, but one which has to be keenly sought.

“Almost 900m people currently lack access to safe drinking water, and an estimated 2.6bn people lack access to basic sanitation,” UNEP says. “Over half the world’s hospitals beds are occupied with people suffering from illnesses linked with contaminated water.”

Not surprising then that the world’s chemicals makers have to understand the role their plants and products play in water use and resource protection. And many believe that they can do more to provide water solutions and better environmental protection from their plants and activities.

The 22nd of March was World Water Day and the focus of corporate and government-sponsored events and publications worldwide.

“It is my hope that activities taking place globally today will raise public awareness of the water quality challenges facing humanity, and the need to commit to concrete remedial actions at all levels,” said Anna Tibajuka, executive director of UN-Habitat.

Wastewater is increasingly being tackled effectively in the industrialised nations but is a major pollutant in the developing world, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

For some chemicals producers, water solutions and the materials increasingly required to help access potable water supplies are becoming big business. The water use debate, however, extends deep into the regulatory environment, to resource cost and availability and process efficiency.

“The facts and figures are stark,” said Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary-general and UNEP director, in a statement released on 22 March. “Pollution from wastewater is quite literally killing people, indeed 2m children die annually as a result of contaminated water. The impacts on the wider environment and in particular the marine environment are also sobering.”

And the situation on the face of it can only get worse.

“If the world is to thrive, let alone to survive on a planet of 6bn people heading to over 9bn by 2050, we need to get collectively smarter and more intelligent about how we manage waste including wastewaters,” added Steiner.

The chemical industry, whose water use is great, should be helping do just that.

Two of the World Water Day press releases that passed across the ICIS news desk on 22 March caught my attention. The first was from SusChem, the EU research “platform” for sustainable chemistry.

It is cooperating with the Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform (WSSTP) to help develop a water management approach that will mean that water for public and industrial use “would no longer need to compete for the same resources”. The scheme would involve water reuse, complementary water streams, and reduced water consumption, SusChem said.

“Rethinking the traditional will help industry tackle water use in a world where the resource is already under pressure and should be treated as a valuable raw material instead of a simple utility,” according to Ger Spork, innovation manager at the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic).

It is early days yet, but the programme will look at how the use of more water to produce the materials of the future and utilise renewable feedstocks, possibly in biotechnology-based processes, can be managed most effectively. One goal is to receive funding for the development of a demonstration project.

The chemical industry currently is acutely aware of the cost of its water use and companies have been working hard on resource reduction.

Dow Chemical, for instance, has been pushing for zero water discharge from its manufacturing sites. At Terneuzen in the Netherlands, Dow is working with local and regional authorities to take household wastewater to convert to water for its manufacturing facilities. The resource is reused multiple times, Dow says.

Another potentially serious water issue has to do with the resource use and environmental impact of the development of shale gas reserves in North America.

A vitally important natural resource, shale gas development has attracted a great deal of attention. But developments could be stymied by environmental issues.

Shale gas could be a game changer for the energy outlook in North America, some say. Yet the water footprints of shale gas projects have hit the news given the need for water and for wastewater clean-up in the hydro-fracturing, or “fracking” process. These water footprint issues must be resolved if shale gas is to reach its full potential, the promoters of an upcoming webinar on the issue noted.

The number of water-related issues which have a direct impact on the industry is significant but not always immediately recognised. Great strides have been made in wastewater treatment: water use is more closely monitored and controlled, particularly the trade-off with increased use of energy.

But water is essential for life. The overarching goal of the SusChem/WSSTP project is for water to be recognised and treated as a valuable resource to be reused and recycled, not as an inexhaustible resource, SusChem says. If industry can demonstrate that it can take that message on board, then further great strides can be made.

Bookmark Doris de Guzman’s Green Chemicals blog for views on sustainability issues
To discuss water and other issues facing the chemical industry, go to ICIS connect

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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