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Water scarcity – a rising tide of risks for process industries

Written by Mårten Krogerus
28/06/2022

Is water shortage posing a growing threat to business?

Clean water has become an increasingly scarce resource and commodity and is strongly capturing attention from politicians and business leaders all over the world. Many companies in affected areas have recognised the concern and are striving to manage the demand by setting public or internal targets for water consumption.

An increasing number of regions are nearing the limit of sustainable water services

Clean freshwater is an essential ingredient for a healthy human life, as well as for a sustainable industry and growth of the global economy. Water consumption has increased more than twice as fast as population growth over the previous century. Simultaneously, the impact of climate change have reduced precipitation in many areas.

Especially in arid regions, an increasing number of sectors are reaching the limit at which water services can be delivered sustainably. Water scarcity already affects every continent and according to the UN, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages by 2025. Hence, the UN Sustainable Development Goal No 6 is to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

Many industry sectors are highly dependent on water and are directly exposed to the risk of water scarcity

In the coming years, availability of fresh water will affect many industries in ways that may not seem obvious at this point. The process industry, specifically pulp and paper, selected chemical industries, and mining sectors are all significant users of fresh water and are directly exposed to the risk of water scarcity. Overall, water is a critical factor for many industries as being the transport media in processes, providing means for process heating and cooling as well as enabling sufficient maintenance and cleaning to mention a few. Water availability and quality issues may disrupt supply chains and operational risks are rising as a result of more frequent draughts caused by climate change.

In areas with limited available freshwater resources, there may be sufficient water to meet human and environmental needs, but for industry the access may be limited at least during certain seasons. Also, there may be several actors competing for the same clean water resources and most probably, the cost of clean water will increase in the future. Therefore, water must be treated as a scarce resource, with a far stronger focus on managing the demand in a sustainable way.

Many industrial operators have already recognised the issue of future water availability and cost, and have formed a sustainability strategy including numerical targets to address the issues. There is also an increasing understanding of the relationship between water usage efficiency and overall material and energy efficiency, which are critical sustainability performance indicators.

Sustainable solutions help businesses stay afloat

For many businesses, however, it is critical to recognise the situation and assess and manage water-related risks and opportunities in order to ensure a profitable and responsible core business, improved performance, and operational excellence, as well as corporate environmental and social responsibility.

Combining in-depth expertise of process technology, water treatment, and chemistry with practical experience from thousands of assignments enables AFRY to develop solutions that are viable, sustainable, and lead to reductions in water usage.

Currently, AFRY is working on various projects with clients to create concepts for increased closure of process water systems, and in some cases, even total closure. Often, the projects are also related to meeting the client’s sustainability targets. The key issue is not the closure of water systems themselves, but the management of the consequences the closure creates for product quality, process stability, scaling tendency, safety and material issues.

water drops on leaf

Examples of recent assignments

In Central Europe, water availability is limited and emissions restricted in many areas. In Germany, AFRY has been involved in the design of totally closed cycle mills with basically zero liquid emissions. The concept has involved internal kidney processes to remove dissolved and particular material from water circuits, thus enabling reuse.

In South America, AFRY is supporting local pulp and paper industry companies to develop solutions for closing up water circuits in mills located at small and sensitive waterbodies. In a recent project, AFRY developed concepts for a paper and tissue mill for reducing water consumption to 50%, while at the same time assuring the concentrations in remaining effluent to river did not exceed legal limits. The methods included closing cooling water loops and replacing fresh water with processed clear filtrates in various positions. Also, improved water use monitoring in the different positions is an important element for water reduction.

Chemicals

AFRY has also worked with a number of chemical pulp mills to discover solutions for water circuit closure. In two recent projects at pulp and paper mills in Europe, the objective has been to reduce water consumption through low-cost measures. Typically, at least 20% low-cost water savings can be identified at most chemical pulp mills.

AFRY has also been supporting a major global pulp and paper company in defining the measures for how to meet their corporate 25% water reduction target. The work has involved initially audit analyses at all facilities, preparation of detailed water balances and definition and engineering of specific projects to implement selected measures.

In a follow-up project, AFRY presented concepts for closing water circuits of a chemical pulp mill to levels approaching zero discharge. The concepts involved both proven and emerging technologies for separation of dissolved material in water circuits.

By bridging the gap and moving from knowing to doing in the area of sustainable water management, one may go from being compliant to gaining a competitive edge, creating value, and enhancing company performance in the long run. This is strongly a part our mission at AFRY: “We accelerate the transition towards a sustainable society”.

On the author: Mårten Krogerus, Head of Sustainability Services and Leading Technology Specialist at AFRY, has more than 35 years of experience of working with environmental assignments for the pulp and paper, and other process industries. He has a broad know-how and understanding of all the sustainability issues related to the industry branch. His special area of expertise is water management in process industry. Along with other areas he has worked specifically with conceptual studies, mill environmental audits, and process optimisation and improvement tasks.

Mårten Krogerus - Head of Global Sustainability Services, Process Industries

Mårten Krogerus

Head of Global Sustainability Services, Process Industries

Contact Mårten Krogerus

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