A new era for industrial water security in Asia

New technology can help industry on the world’s largest continent get smarter about H2O

Despite comprising the bulk of humanity, Asia’s per-capita availability of fresh water ranks lowest of all continents—a situation that climate change will likely exacerbate in the years ahead. But water is an essential pillar of industrial development. From construction materials to pharmaceuticals, water flows through every corner of global commerce. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia, whose roughly 4.7 billion people depend on water not just for drinking but for maintaining an economic growth record that has been the envy of much of the world.

This is spurring a shift in thinking about water among Asia’s industrial ecosystem. Gone are the days when water that flows through the pipes of a factory or manufacturing facility can be dumped back into local rivers or bays. Smart water management is growing in importance as Asian industrial bosses realize that the days of taking H2O for granted are over.

A business necessity and a regulatory ramp-up

Much of this boils down to dollars and cents (or yen, baht or rupees). Industrial users are facing off against agricultural users and rapidly growing urban areas—in addition to each other—for increasingly scarce resources. The competition is set to intensify, with industrial water demand set to surge to over twice its 2010 level by 2050, by far the largest increase of any continent. At the same time, water quality has been deteriorating, with the Asian Development Bank tallying a 50% rise in pollution among major rivers in the region between 1990 and 2010.

This drop in clean water supply is fostering a mindset shift among Asian policymakers, particularly in India, one of the world’s most water-stressed nations. The hammer is falling on industry, with fines and penalties for polluted water discharge increasing in recent years. Prodded on by restive voters and angry urbanites, officials are no longer turning a blind eye to dirty factory runoff, as they typically did for decades.

This combination of dearer supply and heightened regulatory scrutiny means that reusing water within factory systems is starting to pencil out. Interest in water treatment methods like nanofiltration (NF) is growing. Factories can use wastewater treated with NF and related technologies to wash tanks, for instance, or clean factory floors. Emerald is looking at companies in India that use electrodes to make NF more effective and efficient. The proliferation of such innovations is boosting the appeal of treating water for reuse within factory systems and transforming smart water management from an afterthought into a key consideration. Companies that do not want to depend on the vicissitudes of local climates or local utilities can gain their own scaled-down variety of “water security” via such breakthroughs.

Local solutions for local problems

Just as homegrown dissatisfaction with the status quo is forcing regulators’ hand, so too are foreign companies operating factories in emerging Asia facing pressure from home-country stakeholders to adopt cleaner practices. Similar to how decarbonization pressures are compelling large multinationals to reduce emissions up and down their supply chains, so too are they embracing this new take on industrial water security—and adoption of related technologies. Dirty water runoff is a scourge that developed-world consumers are loathe to support, regardless of where it occurs.

That does not mean, however, that companies can necessarily adopt Western technologies to clean up the problem. Take India as an example: many industrial facilities there sit on small footprints, making it unfeasible to install the large water treatment tanks common in Western countries. Nimble, space-saving solutions can be a workaround to solve local problems and constraints.

Working within local contexts and staying responsive to local concerns will be vital to addressing Asia’s water woes. This principle guides Emerald’s work in leveraging innovation to solve one of the biggest problems in the biggest region in the world.