Businesses that take action now can prevent water and energy shortages in the future.
South Africa’s water and energy challenges are well known and range from ageing infrastructure, supply constraints and pollution to the impact of climate change on society and businesses.
The recently released non-financial census of municipalities (NFCM) released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) paints a rather sombre picture of the future, however. According to the data the highest number of unfilled posts in technical areas was recorded in the environmental protection services (23%), followed by electricity departments (20%), while waste water management departments and water reported vacancy rates of 16% and 12% respectively.
Given that water and energy are crucial for growth and development, their availability and quality remains a limiting factor across the country despite a recorded 2.5% annual increase in the provision of water to consumers.
Related: Save energy for business energy-efficiency savings tax incentives
It is therefore imperative for businesses to take a far more proactive stance if they hope to fill the gaps in supply and service. More practical and sustainable solutions are needed to improve the way businesses harness water and energy efficiencies across their organisations to significantly cut costs and raise profitability potential - the impact of these changes on society and the environment cannot be underestimated.
Water scarcity a major challenge
The reality is that despite recent rains, December 2015 was the driest December in South Africa in 15 years, according to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
The satellite imagery derived showed that there was up to 60% decrease in vegetation greenness in December 2015 in some parts of the Free State and North West. This placed a strain on water supplies and agricultural production in the country, highlighting that despite recent rains, water scarcity remains one of the major challenges our country faces.
Further warming of between 4 – 6 ºC and 3 – 5 ºC, over the subtropics and tropics respectively, are projected to occur by the end of this century.
Many initiatives to address the challenges have been taken up in different sectors in different ways but when it comes to water, these have generally been fragmented and isolated, often resulting in ineffective solutions at the national level.
Turning to alternative solutions
Yet, when industries improve their awareness of the challenges, they begin changing old habits and improving outcomes. The recent power crisis spurred many to seek alternative sources of energy, for example, simply because they had no choice as they risked going out of business. It would be short sighted for businesses not to continue ramping up their strategic power saving initiatives as supply remains constrained.
The national renewable energy plan is also making inroads at a broader level, but it is still a small percentage of overall power supply. CSIR research has determined that renewable energy from South Africa's first wind and solar projects created R4 billion more financial benefits to the country than they cost during the first six months of 2015.
However, the soft drink industry is an excellent example of how strategic initiatives can change outcomes for the better. The South African soft drink industry produces in the region of 3 700 Megalitres per year (based on 2012 figures). This is more than double the volume recorded in 1987, according to a study completed for the Water Research Commission (WRC) by the Pollution Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The study calculated the specific water intake (SWI) of participating companies. The SWI refers to the litres of water used per litre of production. The average SWI was calculated as 1.6 litres for carbonated soft drinks.
Related: How to save water in your business
This is far lower than the target of 2.3 litres set out in the 1987 survey. The average water use was calculated at 170 000 kilolitres/year while the average production was calculated at 120 000 kilolitres/year. The majority of companies were found to be aware of the need to optimise water use.
The increase in efficiency in the use of water is attributed to the following:
- Installation of sub-metering
- Leak prevention programmes
- Optimisation of clean-in-place
- Recovery and reuse of filter water from water treatment
- Optimising water use on the conveyors
- Investigating the use of rainwater harvesting
Carefully planned strategies
The best outcomes can be achieved when they form part of a carefully laid out strategy.
For example, Nestle has developed a comprehensive water stewardship and policy initiative which aims to reduce direct water withdrawals per tonne of product in every product category to achieve an overall reduction of 35% versus 2010. It is firmly on track after its factories withdrew 41.2% less water per tonne of product than they did 10 years ago. For example, it introduced zero water technology at its dairy factory in Jalisco, Mexico. This system reuses water vapour from the milk instead of withdrawing groundwater, saving around 1.6 million litres of water a day.
Coca Cola, which has improved water efficiency by 10% since 2010, aims to improve water efficiency in manufacturing operations by 25% by 2020, compared with a 2010 baseline.
When it started the water saving journey in 2004, Coca Cola used 2.7 litres of water to make 1 litre of product. That means that 1 litre of water is in the product and another 1.7 litre is used in the manufacturing process, mostly for keeping equipment clean. Today, they are using 2.03 litres of water to make 1 litre of product and are working to reduce it to 1.7 litres of water per litre of product (a 25% improvement) by 2020.
The key driver in improving water efficiency is reducing or removing water use in manufacturing processes. For example Coca Cola uses water footprinting — an approach to assess the total volume of water used to produce a product.
Related: Onus on manufacturing to save water
As a founding partner of the Water Footprint Network, it has worked with WWF, The Nature Conservancy and others to assess the water embedded in its products, packaging and ingredients so it can better understand the implications for their business, and work to reduce impacts.
Many other companies can replicate models like these that focus on the reuse and recycling of water in their operations. Other simple tactics would be to harvest rainwater by using water tanks that catch water flowing off roofs.
Far more needs to be done and even those that are embarking on their own saving strategies can entrench these changes by partnering with other businesses to scale down on water and energy usage. Creating manufacturing hubs to use less water, for example, remains a viable solution if done in a strategic fashion and on a broader scale.
However, it requires an intense review of operations and regular updates on how objectives are being achieved across the entire value chain. This would entail working with specialists that can become trusted partners in the change processes that need to be nurtured.