The importance of water innovation

The future of water: How innovations will advance water sustainability and  resilience worldwide

South Africa is a water scarce country with only 450 mm average rainfall per year – almost half the global average. This stark reality underscores the importance of establishing a robust innovation ecosystem among local businesses.

A recently published National Treasury economic policy paper, ‘Economic transformation, inclusive growth, and competitiveness: Towards an Economic Strategy for South Africa’ estimated that by 2030, the demand for water in South Africa would reach 17.7 billion cubic litres, while supply would be only 15 billion cubic litres. And that’s before factoring in the effects of climate change.

It is therefore incumbent on every organisation to find innovative ways to use water more efficiently. So says Nomathemba Mhlanga, senior manager of sustainability at CHEP. Failure to do so threatens the sustainability of businesses – and society at large.

The challenge

According to CHEP, South Africa faces three major challenges to water availability throughout the country. Apart from having very seasonal rainfall, 43% of rain falls on only 13% of the country. Low water flow in rivers further limits usable water, and major urban and industrial developments happening within water-scarce regions necessitate costly large-scale water transfer schemes across borders.

As corporate citizens, local companies should be doing serious introspection to identify how processes, systems and supply chains can be made more water-efficient. Ideally, this focus should become part of the corporate culture, constantly tapping into the skills and creativity of staff and stakeholders.

Fertile ground for innovation

CHEP has found surprising opportunities for significant water savings in its own supply chains. One such area is their cleaning process, says Nomathemba. Pallets and containers shared and reused by CHEP’s clients are cleaned before being issued to the next customer, which includes removing adhesive labels that assist with digital tracking and tracing. “Previously, these labels used an extremely sticky adhesive that required intensive washing and spraying using high-pressure hoses and several litres of water at a time before it could be removed. Our solution was to develop a new, easy-peel label that requires no water for removal.”

This seemingly small innovation has had a massive impact on water-use efficiency. “We estimate that if all of our customers in South Africa adopt the Easy Peel Label throughout the supply chain, we could save enough water to provide drinking water to 21 918 people for a year. We have therefore launched a drive to encourage all our clients to ‘make the change’ to the Easy Peel Labels.”

One car-rental company devised a method of recycling water used during car-washing, cutting the water used during a single wash from 185 litres to only 28 litres. The company calculated it had saved one billion litres of water in just over a decade.

And in the brewing industry, a brewer was able to cut its water use by 30% by partnering with the barley growers that provide some of the inputs for its products. The savings improved the company’s efficiency to where just more than three litres of water are needed to grow all the ingredients for a litre of beer. Elsewhere in the industry, water-to-beer ratios can be as large as 9:1.

Cities of the future

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“To create sustainable water in cities, all stakeholders need to act to avoid the looming water crisis,” Nomathemba says. “We need to share experience and knowledge, and track progress.” He envisions a new breed of water-sensitive cities in the future where water innovations flourish. They will successfully deal with the increasing pressures on water resources posed by increasing population densities.

“South Africa’s water security depends on a sustained supply from its water resources. With increasing numbers of people living in metropolitan areas, water, energy and materials need to be efficiently used, reused and renewed. These resources are the natural capital on which all our investments for production depend and it’s imperative they are conserved, restored, maintained, monitored and carefully managed,” says Nomathemba.

The encouraging part is that this process is already underway, he says. Water-consciousness is gradually entering the corporate and national discourse. Every organisation needs to do its part to accelerate this trend. The sustainability of our businesses, our future generations – and our country – are at stake.