More than a century and a half ago, inspired by a Thomas Carlyle lecture he attended in Manchester, the founder of the Tata group, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, started thinking about setting up a steel plant in India. He hired a team of geologists to find iron-ore deposits and a site for the plant. They zeroed in on Sakchi in what is today called Jharkhand, a mineral-rich state. Located near the confluence of two rivers, the Subarnarekha and the Kharkai, Sakchi also has abundant water supply. Steel is a water-intensive industry. The site in Sakchi would ensure the plant would have enough water for its operations when it would roll out the first ingots of steel ever made by Tata Steel.

Today, the first steel factory of the Tata group still stands, much bigger than when it started. The territory that includes Sakchi has since been renamed Jamshedpur after the group’s founder. The plant, retrofitted for modern manufacturing practices, rolls out about 10 million tonnes of steel a year. The rivers still serve the factory well. But there are more changes than the name of the place and the quantum of produce.

At the unit, crude steel capacity has doubled over the past decade, but freshwater intake has fallen thanks to the ‘three Rs’ principle: reduce, reuse, and recycle. A state-of-the-art four-million-gallon-per-day central effluent treatment plant recycles wastewater for using in steelmaking. Freshwater intake is down 25% from four years ago.

Another initiative is the use of water from the sewage treatment plant in Jamshedpur. A sludge dewatering system is also being planned, which will treat slurry (a semi-liquid concentrate of ore and water) and separate it from the waste. The slurry will be sent for pellet-making and the water for recycling. The company also measures its water consumption using a GPRS/GSM system. It also tracks effluents with respect to quality and quantity, with the data transferred in real-time to the government's environmental regulatory bodies, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board.

Central Effluent Water Treatment Plant, Jamshedpur.
Central Effluent Water Treatment Plant, Jamshedpur.
Image : Tata Steel

For some processes, no water is used at all. Take the process of coke dry quenching. Coke is the refined form of coking coal, an important ingredient in the steel-making process. It is obtained by heating coking coal in coke ovens at 1,000°C-1,100°C. It must be cooled, or quenched, before it is used in blast furnaces for making iron. Traditionally, the process uses freshwater. Now it uses air. “When we started the Jamshedpur steel plant, we used to consume nearly 14 cubic metre of water to produce one tonne of crude steel. Today, we use about 3 cubic metre of water to produce one tonne of crude steel,” says Sanjiv Paul, vice president, safety, health and sustainability, Tata Steel.

So what led to one of the biggest steel companies in the world to be more frugal and careful with its water use? Paul says in the last few years the senior management of the company started to see how climate change caused by rising CO2emissions has become a major concern. At 412parts per million (the desired level is 350 parts per million), CO2 emissions are at unprecedented levels due to which heatwaves, changing rain patterns, and scarcity of water are becoming more frequent. “We emit about 2 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of crude steel we make. There will be a price to pay for these emissions and we need to find ways to reduce and eliminate these emissions,” says Paul.

As the debate over depleting resources and climate change rages the world over, it cannot be business as usual, especially when it comes to the use of a resource such as water—essential for life. A report by the World Resources Institute called National Water Stress Rankings says 17 countries, home to a quarter of the world’s population, are facing “extremely high water stress”. India happens to be 13th on the list; Qatar tops it (see chart).

To be sure, India is no stranger to water scarcity. In rural parts of states such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Manipur, and Jharkhand, women walk miles to fetch water even today. Now cities, too, are facing a similar situation. Chennai, one of the biggest cities in India, experienced Day Zero, when taps run dry or water sources dry up, in June 2019. In summers, long queues of people bearing plastic pots before community taps are no uncommon sight in the capital of Tamil Nadu, where major companies—both global and Indian—have offices and campuses. But this time, the situation was severe in the city of 10 million. The four main reservoirs that take care of a lion’s share of Chennai's water needs—Red Hills, Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram, and Poondi—had almost dried up because of a weak monsoon. Companies like Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services, and Fiat Chryslerinstructed their staff to save water. Some organisations asked employees to work from home.

The situation cannot be considered a one-off. Chennai is one of the cities expected to run out of groundwater by 2021, says a report released in July 2018 by Composite Water Management Index(CWMI). According to government think tank Niti Aayog, India’s urban population is expected to reach 600 million by 2030. It also says that five of the world’s 20 largest cities under water stress are in India, and 8 million children below the age of 14 in urban India are at risk due to poor water supply.

Agriculture uses up most of India’s freshwater resources, then come households and businesses. All three are serious polluters of water bodies, too. But the consequences for businesses (whose groundwater use stands at 5%; agro use stands at 90%) for harming the environment can be costly. Besides dents to profits and reputation, it could mean having to give up investments such as plants and factories if their use of resources like water poses a threat to communities. A case in point is Coca-Cola shutting its Plachimada bottling facility in Palakkadin Kerala in 2004. The plant, set up in 1999, was shut after people rose in protest when it emerged that the plant’s operations had caused the groundwater level to fall and affected the quality of water.

Experts and environmentalists have raised concerns about both depleting groundwater levels and rivers drying up in India, an agricultural economy. “The problem is we still don’t know how much water we have,” says weather and agri-risk monitoring company Skymet’s managing director Jatin Singh. “There is still no reliable source for groundwater table or a source which is accurate—[which says the groundwater level]here is 100 ft., here [it] is 400 ft., the rate at which it is going down. The quality of water has also come into question. We don’t have comprehensive data.” Singh says a major reason for this is because water is free. “The moment water is priced you will start collecting data and measures will be adopted to save this precious resource,” he says.

Priyank Hirani, team lead, water-to-cloud programme at the TataCentre for Development (TCD) at the University of Chicago, says using floodplains (river basins) for human activities like construction is one of the major reasons for vanishing rivers. “[The water crisis in] Chennai is an example probably caused by rapid construction and real estate on that area of the river,” says Hirani. And pollution does not help matters.“A bunch of polluting sources including industrial waste and agricultural waste—due to high use of pesticides entering the river directly—adds up.”He says there is a need for industries to be self-monitoring for pollution, while the role of the government can be to check on them every now and then. “A lot of industries use groundwater. They also have borewells. They don't need water; a lot of their processes are even fine with [treated]wastewater. If they have wastewater treatment plants, we can have a circular economy where we have wastewater which is treated to some extent that may not be used for agriculture and drinking but can go back to industries; that will reduce the pressure on groundwater,” he says.

Authorities seem to be cognisant of the groundwater crisis, but measures to address it seem to be at cross purposes. Revised guidelines issued by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) under the Ministry of Water Resources have provisions for action against polluting industries, and mandate daily monitoring of use and rooftop harvesting of rainwater. Users will be charged a water conservation fee. However, the National Green Tribunal, which deals with cases pertaining to environmental issues, has put a stay on the rules (which came into effect from June 1, 2019), because they “worsened” the situation by liberalising extraction.

Some industries are taking note of the situation, and some have embarked on the journey. Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer, Mahindra Group, says its auto and agro businesses have cut down on their water use. “There are factories that now don’t take water from the municipality for 200 days in a year,” he says, thanks to water harvesting and recycling methods. Earlier last year, Maruti Suzuki India said it saved over 656 million litres of water in 2018 across its plants—203% higher than what it saved in 2016.

Paul says that in 2017, when Tata Steel asked him to head its sustainability initiative, he enrolled into the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). The first thing he did after finishing the course was to start by sensitising his colleagues about sustainability. Now, Tata Steel has a regular collaboration with CISL. Also, steel, being one of the most polluting industries, has a larger role to play when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint and water use. Avneesh Gupta, vice president, total quality management and shared services at Tata Steel, says, “We should set some benchmarks of our own.”

The company had earmarked a “few thousand crores” for the purpose about seven years ago. And it plans to spend ₹100 crore- ₹110 crore in FY20 on water. Gupta says it has signed up with various manufacturers to deliver it the latest and most water-efficient technologies for its plants. Pradeep Banerjee, executive director, supply chain, at Hindustan Unilever (HUL), says the company has brought down its water consumption by half from the levels before 2009. This is in line with the fast-moving consumer goods firm’s parent Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to cut water use despite the increase in volumes.HUL sells 40 billion products every year.

The company, whose products such as soaps, shampoos, and detergents are used by 95% of households in India, says innovation in terms of products which require consumers to use less water are in the works. Some are already in the market. “We have a challenging situation in parts of the country especially in Tamil Nadu, which most of this year [2019] has been water-starved. Vidarbha, Tamil Nadu, these are parts of our country where consumers are struggling with water, and by nature our products are used with a lot of water. Therefore we have created a range of products that clean without consuming as much water,” says Priya Nair, executive director, home care, HUL.

In 2018, the company launched its popular Rin detergent with “smart foam”. So if it took four buckets of water to wash a bucket of clothes, with the new product, it takes only one.

Another water-intensive industry that has to walk a fine line on its water use is food and beverages. “Water is a big risk,” says Viraj Chouhan, chief government affairs and communications officer, PepsiCo India. “Nobody wants to set up an operation where there is water scarcity. For the sustainability of our own plant operation it is required [that we] develop water sustainability so that we have water supply for our own operations.”PepsiCo India uses technologies such as zero-liquid-discharge and moving-bed-biofilm-reactor systems to treat wastewater. It used to consume about 7 litres of water to produce 1 litre of Pepsi. It now uses just 1.8 litres.

PepsiCo India’s water sustainability efforts go beyond water treatment technology. The company is working with a development support agency called Alternative Development Initiative (ADI). The techno-socio organisation does water assessment mapping of the entire area near PepsiCoIndia’s plants and comes out with priority water resources, like community ponds and temporary dams available there which can be taken up for rejuvenation. The company has also been helping communities by imparting training in proper crop pattern adoption and cultivation techniques. It is now partnering with state governments for treating wastewater bodies to make water from them fit for irrigation. “Perception management is important for all companies these days. They want to be seen as responsible companies with sustainable practices. In the long run, natural resources like water are only going to become scarce and therefore the industrial practices have to become much more efficient. India in many states is already facing an acute water crisis,” says Nawneet Vibhaw, partner at Khaitan & Co., who specialises in environmental dispute resolution and advisory.

Businesses increasingly embracing a circular economy when it comes to water consumption has widened revenue streams for companies that sell water-treatment solutions. L&T Construction's water and effluent treatment business is reportedly looking to double revenue to $4 billion in three-four years. The company takes on projects related to industrial water supply and treatment plants for recycling, wastewater treatment, refurbishment of treatment plants, rehabilitation of canals, lift irrigation projects, and desalination.

We used to consume 14 m3 of water to produce one tonne crude steel. Today, we use about 3 m3
Sanjiv Paul, Vice President-Safety, health and sustainability, Tata Steel
Perception management is important for companies
Nawneet Vibhaw, Partner, Kaitan & Co.
The moment water is priced you will start collecting data
Jatin Singh, Managing Director, Skymet

Schneider Electric, the French multinational company which specialises in energy management and automation, says demand for its water solutions has increased. Anil Chaudhry, country president and managing director, Schneider Electric, says it is using technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality-based solutions to access remote areas to resolve issues such as water leakages. “It used to take almost 10 days [to identify leakages], now it takes a few minutes and seconds to actually pinpoint where the problem is and what is the nature of the problem,” he says. “Demand for these solutions have really gone very high [from] all the governing bodies because water [issuesconcern] a mix of government and non-government bodies,” he says.

ESRI, a supplier of geographic information system software, has also seen demand for water-related services. “We work with organisations like the Central Ground Water Board and the Central Water Commission and with similar departments in all states. We get a lot of projects from them for managing their water resources,” says Agendra Kumar, president, ESRI India.

In 2017, South Africa’s Cape Town showed the world what a severe water crisis would look like. It had been preparing for such an eventuality with desalination plants and borewells which were not due to open till after 2020. Only that climate change effects hit sooner. That’s why the Chennai crisis bodes ill for India, a country weighed down by arising population, rapid urbanisation, and shoddy water management. There are also fears of an economic impact. Skymet’s Singh sums up: “If you have an overpopulated country, your air quality comes under stress. All your natural resources face the pressure and there will come a situation where you may not have enough water. Why will someone like you and me take it at face value?”

(This story was originally published in the January 2019 issue of the magazine.)

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