What’s the first thing you think of when addressing climate change? For many, that answer is energy, weather, emissions, etc. One area that often goes unnoticed, however, is water. When China has a water table that has dropped by 1 meter per year since 1974, with rising global temperatures adding stress to already arid parts of the world, we have a problem.
Air Products and Chemicals is an industrial gases company that is reliant on water, natural gas, and other forms of energy to maintain their operations. In a nutshell:
“Air Products serves customers in industrial, energy, technology and healthcare markets worldwide with a unique portfolio of atmospheric gases, process and specialty gases, performance materials, and equipment and services. Founded in 1940, Air Products has built leading positions in key growth markets such as semiconductor materials, refinery hydrogen, home healthcare services, natural gas liquefaction, and advanced coatings and adhesives.”
The impacts of water scarcity on manufacturing and industrial production facilities is not insignificant. In fact, two-thirds of the global population is likely to be affected by severe water shortages. Half of the four billion people who will experience water scarcity for at least one month of the year reside in India or China. With these critical emerging markets so acutely affected, the importance of large corporations addressing water consumption in these areas in particular is paramount.
Because of this understanding, Air Products has been keenly aware of their water consumption and the way in which scarcity affects their direct operations. One of Air Products’ three sustainability goals is captured in the following statement:
“Our sustainability focus is to conserve resources and reduce environmental footprints through cost-effective improvements.”
Clear and quantitative goals have been set in order to move towards achieving such reductions. For water, Air Products committed to a 10% reduction in global water usage by 2015 from a 2009 baseline. I called up Julie O’Brien, the Corporate Sustainability Manager for Air Products and Chemicals, to get the lowdown on where they stood as far as reaching those goals and to gain some further insight into how water scarcity has affected operations at APCI.
She filled me in on the fact that with just a little more attention to water usage in cooling water systems, in particular, Air Products managed to meet their water reduction goal with a whopping 23% improvement. In California, some initiatives have been put in place to use recycled grey water from the city. In addition, while they have not had to shut down operations at any plants just yet, they have had water scarcity and flooding related costs incurred. Julie explained that during times and in locations with water shortages the water will have more solids in it and require more pre-treatment. In areas where the plant was not designed with this in mind, they have had to bring in expensive water treatment equipment on both a temporary and a permanent basis to plants in China, the southwest US and India. In any case this hits the bottom line.
After reflecting on my conversation with Julie, I thought further about some deeper impacts scarcity could have on Air Products and companies like them as we move into the future. Humans, who can live for 30 days without food, can only live for 3 days without water. India, China and Africa all have populations and economies on the rise with water tables dropping at an unsustainable rate. Eventually, a decision will need to be made as to who gets the water, and governments may be forced to ration safe water between corporations and citizens. An extreme hike in the price of water to corporations or forced stop of manufacturing facilities is not far from the realm of possibility. Air Products will need to plan for this by looking to build new plants in areas with greater water access, equipping plants with desalination technology, and incorporating robust water treatment tech at operating facilities.
When do you think the price of water will finally match its true value?
Frankel, Todd. “New NASA Data Show How the World Is Running out of Water.” Washington Post 16 June 2015: n. pag. Print.
“Managing Sustainability.” Managing Sustainability. N.p., 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2016. .
O’Brien, Julie. “Water Usage at Air Products.” Telephone interview. 04 Nov. 2016.
St. Fleur, Nicholas. “Two-Thirds of the World Faces Severe Water Shortages.” New York Times 12 Feb. 2016: n. pag. Print.