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The cost of unpredictable water

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Industry depends on an anticipated supply of clean water, but water availability and water quality are both becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Manufacturing uses water as a raw ingredient, as a medium for processes, for temperature control, for washing and sanitizing. Unavailability of water or poor quality water can halt production lines and impact product quality. Though there is high variance in water availability, quality and price, there is very low tolerance for variations in output quality and quantity.

Therefore industries need to build water resilience. Resilience means business and operational continuity in the face of unavailability of water, or poor quality influent.

For this, organizations need to start factoring water into their value chain and optimize its use.

Underestimating the problem of water

Water is a challenging component of value chain management of a manufacturing business because it spills over the boundaries of the organization.

A long view of water in the value chain traces water’s flow back to its source, via the infrastructure that brings it into the facility, factoring in the competitive claims on water by its other stakeholders—ecological, agricultural, industrial and domestic.

The end user often does not recognize this complicated journey of water.


One, the ease with which water reaches the end customer belies the complexity of its journey and the trade-offs negotiated between different user groups in getting access to water.

Two, the infrastructure costs of cleaning, storing and distributing water are high but are not adequately paid for by the end user. On the contrary, water to industry is subsidized.

The availability of water at a low cost leads industrial water users to assume that water is an easily available resource, whereas actually, it is not. In addition, regulations on recycling discourage uptake of this practice instead of encouraging it. These translate to our attitude to water.

To invest or not to invest in water management infrastructure

Is it costlier to halt production, compromise product consistency, compromise brand reputation, or is it costlier to develop a long-term system to manage water quality and availability?

Building water resilience means capital investment. Businesses often opt to buy water to their specification, instead of installing, operating and maintaining an in-house water management infrastructure. But there is more to water quality and flow management than capital investment. Implementation of water-aware processes requires organizations to be water-aware:

- Know how much water they are currently using

- Identify areas where water budgets are being exceeded, where water use might be reduced

- Categorize water by intended use and set quality metrics accordingly; every process does not require potable water

- Make financial allocations for water reuse and sustainability

- Track, process, monitor and evaluate water flow and quality

Use-and-throw water versus recycled water

Recycling is a strategy to control water value chain impacts.

Recycling addresses the impacts of water scarcity and costs associated with unreliable input. Industries need to identify their most compelling motivation to consider water recycling.

Is it economics? The cost of water? Of water discharge and regulation?

Is it how the organization might be perceived, following its course of water stewardship? How would this affect brand perception and equity?

Or is it the environmental cost of water scarcity and pollution of sources?

Many businesses opt for a linear system of water use and release into the environment. This is business as usual.

Recycling is a circular system of water use. It diverts used water back into treatment and use. Water is repurposed, reused, recycled. In effect, there is no ‘wastewater’. There is only ‘used water’. It is water that is graded for different kinds of uses, and reused after every use cycle.

Recycling as strategy moves away from a linear system of water use and release.

As water stress increases, organizations might find it cheaper and competitively forward to invest in a long-term vision and strategy for water.

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