The challenge of water scarcity

Paul Boughton

As population growth and climate change place increasing pressure on the amount of fresh water available. How, asks Steve Mines, is water scarcity impacting manufacturers and what can be done to preserve this most precious of natural resources?

There is a growing recognition and understanding across the developed world that a scarcity of fresh water is no longer just an issue for countries where drought and famine has long been a common strand of the socio-economic infrastructure.

A number of factors are at play. In particular, the global population is growing fast.  By 2050 it’s expected to exceed nine billion people. In the UK alone the population is predicted to increase by 24% between 2010 and 2015, to around 77 million. Whatever the actual figure, one thing is certain: the demands on our natural resources and on the manufacturing and production sectors will only increase. For example, it’s estimated that the world will require around 60% more food by 2050¹, with water extraction increasing by a staggering 53% over the same period. This, together with an explosion in urbanisation and the effects of climate change, is putting a huge demand on freshwater resources, which in turn is beginning to push up the price of this vital resource.


So how much freshwater has the world got to spare right now? Breaking down the figures, 97% of the earth’s water is stored in oceans as salt water. Only 3% is fresh water and much of that is contained with the rapidly melting glaciers and ice caps².

Taking into account freshwater extracted from the ground, around 70% of this is for agricultural use, 20% for industrial processes, with just 10% remaining for domestic use.

Fresh water shortages are likely to impact further than the domestic environment. In fact, figures show that manufacturing can account for as much as 50% of the water consumption in Western Europe.

The issue of ‘virtual water’

The real issue lies with the amount of ‘virtual water’ needed in the processing and manufacture of an agricultural or industrial product. To illustrate this in terms of food and drink, just one cup of coffee requires 140 litres (37 gallons) of water throughout the production process, before it’s finally topped up with just a small amount from a kettle. That’s the additional unseen water required for growing, processing and shipping the beans.

For the world of industrial manufacturing, the uses of water throughout production are numerous. Taking the food and beverage sector as an example, aside from any water added to an actual food and drink item, other uses include: refrigeration, cleaning of equipment, freezing, steam production, sealing, canning and bottling. As the amount of water needed increases, but actual availability decreases, it’s evident that the cost related to this provision will also rise exponentially and problems in the provision of water will have serious consequences.

However, it is not all bad news.  Analysis of benchmarked data shows that industries ranging from paper mills, dairy, beverage, ceramics and electronics have opportunities to make significant reductions in their water consumption, in some cases by up to 50%. Many companies, especially in sectors that are water intensive such as food and beverage, are already researching and implementing ways to source water with the minimum impact on operational costs.

Whose job is it to care?

Viewing this issue as the responsibility of only one part in the chain, such as the production manager or maintenance supervisor is both too simplistic and certainly won’t lead to an answer that can benefit the entire business. Interrupted water flow – whether down to mechanical failure or a supply shortage - can have a profound effect on production and operational capacity, which therefore impacts on the fulfilment of productivity targets and profit margins.

The holistic solution lies in the best method of reusing water and regulating the flow wherever possible. Further considerations are how this can be achieved both within budget, within the guidelines and rules of current legislation and without any compromise to the quality of the product being processed. In addition, there are also a number of growing concerns around sustainability and environmental impact as businesses continue to shoulder increasing corporate responsibilities.

The route to water and wastewater management

So at a time when every drop of water counts and to ensure that all of these standards are being met, it’s important that the flow and recycling process is managed via a cost-effective and efficient water and wastewater treatment system.

Having an onsite water management and recycling system is common practice for the majority of manufacturing plants; however, it is often the case that these systems are not being utilised to their maximum capability or are run inefficiently. In many respects this is understandable as the management and operation of water and wastewater treatment assets, although crucial, is rarely a core skill – or indeed core business – for most process and manufacturing companies; instead their focus is on the quality, volume and delivery of the products that they produce.

Implementation of a solution is also dependent on those that control capital spending realising that improvements to water or wastewater treatment systems are an investment in productivity, rather than simply an additional expenditure from budgets that may already be stretched to their limits.

The first step is to gain a thorough understanding of the business’ overall water and wastewater cycle. Typically, this will be through a water, wastewater and energy audit carried out jointly with a prospective partner and the process company’s existing management team. Only by knowing how much water a plant uses, and where, can the production water cycle be truly optimised.

This approach can also identify opportunities to minimise water and energy consumption, through plant optimisation, replacement of older, less efficient systems, or better utilisation of resources, while reducing operating costs.

There are a variety of methods on the market for reducing water consumption, some more effective than others. The latest recirculation innovations are cost-effective and reliable, enabling process water to be reclaimed and wastewater reused safely. In many cases, these methods provide manufacturers with more than just environmental benefits, but also cost savings.

A large volume of process water for example, can be purified using conventional methods of filtration. This includes dissolved air floatation, bioreactors and reverse osmosis that can produce a waste water stream that is of a far higher purity than the mains water supply and which can normally be produced at a lower cost per cubic metre. This water can then be reused for cleaning floors, machine washdown and boiler feed.

However, while all wastewater treatment and purification systems need to be effective and scalable they must also be sufficiently adaptable to meet the specific needs of different sectors.

Leave it to the experts

Rather than try to take care of this internally, the more fiscally and environmentally wise choice may be to outsource the entire operation to a water treatment specialist. Whether this is the installation of an entirely new system or providing a full review and necessary adjustment to an existing system, an expert in this field can ensure that water is being treated and reused as the precious commodity that it is.

A water treatment service provider makes it their business to be fully aware of the issues that water scarcity can cause, and can offer a full suite of end to end solutions that are designed to keep process companies legally compliant as well as efficient and productive.

In certain countries and sectors the issue of water scarcity has been taken seriously for a number of years. UK food and beverage manufacturers for example have collectively been working toward the Federation House commitment of reducing water usage by 20%t by 2020. Progress is being made, as since 2007 there has been a 16% reduction, which is the equivalent of 6.1 million m³.(⁴)

With an expert provider to manage complex industrial and waste water systems to optimise efficiency, customers find that they can make cost savings while benefitting from more time to concentrate on their core business. Through monitoring and reporting while striving for operational excellence, the solutions provider will continue to deliver innovative solutions that bring on-going improvement.

Reducing energy needs and protecting water resources are major challenges currently facing all industries, but whatever the needs of the plant, solutions are available to achieve optimum efficiency of the industrial water cycle.

Steve Mines is with Purite Ltd.  

1 and 2 Water Management in the Food and Drink industry


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