Water Journal : Water Journal February 2013
WATER FEBRUARY 2013 8My Point of View periods of evaporation and greater releases of energy in precipitation events. Investors have begun to realise that water risk is an under-appreciated threat to the pro tability of the companies they invest in. Businesses are being asked to assess and disclose their water risks, and make efforts to reduce them. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has launched a water risk disclosure initiative backed by investors with more than $50 trillion under management. Ceres, a US investor group with a strong sustainability agenda, is also pushing companies to analyse their water risk. How are corporations going about this? It is an emerging science, but there seems to be a consensus that nding out where future demand and supply are most out of kilter is the key to identifying water risk. A number of NGOs such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Resources Institute and the Water Footprint Network have been developing water risk maps that project water demand forward and overlay that with freshwater availability to show where in in the world there is greatest risk of absolute scarcity. And you know what? Over Melbourne there is a big red mark showing the highest level of water risk. AN INTERCONNECTED WORLD That 36 cents a day premium paid by Melburnians also includes the cost of making sure that the city can continue to attract businesses and jobs in the future. But there is still more to it. We live in an interconnected world. If a desalination plant relies on fossil fuels, whatever gains there may be in terms of water sustainability will be squashed under the carbon footprint of the plant. What is required is an approach to the issue of water security that is not at odds with other aspects of sustainability. Australia's contribution to meeting this challenge is zero impact desalination. Nobody had thought it worthwhile or even possible before, but the six great desal plants changed that. They introduced new areas of science: how do you design an outfall so that the brine diffuses quickly enough for seahorses to thrive around the nozzles? What is the most economic way of handling the pre-treatment reject if you don't want to ush it out to sea? How do you manage electricity supply from a wind farm when the power demand for a desalination plant is so very different? This is the legacy from Australian desalination projects. Late last year I was in California for the CalDesal meeting. They have plans for around 20 large desalination plants along the coast, but none of them are moving forward. The biggest challenge they face is not to do with desalination technology. It is about nding their way through the same environmental issues that Australia's six large desalination projects had to confront when they were built. That kind of knowledge is where the value-add in desalination is today. It makes the difference between the $0.48/m3 that Hy ux achieved at the Tuas plant in Singapore and the $5.09 paid for desalted water in Melbourne. If you are wondering whether the Australian experience is transferable, I should point out that the conference in California was sponsored by GHD. But it is not just in the desalination program that Australians have learned the soft environmental skills that can add value elsewhere in the world. In the coal seam gas industry, the restrictions on the disposal of produced water are forcing Australian companies to learn new ways of managing brine. They will be invaluable as the global unconventional gas revolution unfolds. Similarly, some of the water management strategies being developed in the mining industry -- I am thinking here of things like Fortescue Metal's managed aquifer storage project in the Pilbara -- have global relevance. THE GROWTH OF PEOPLE POWER You might say that since the global nancial crisis no-one has money for the environment any more. That is only partly true. Something else has been changing as well as the economy over the past few years: it is the gathering strength of people power. Social networks, mobile phones, message boards -- they are making it much easier for ordinary people to voice their opinions and gather together like-minded people to make a difference. It is weakening politicians everywhere -- not just in Egypt and Libya. Australia may be a country of weak politicians with fat wallets, but politicians elsewhere are nding it increasingly dif cult to ignore the environmental concerns of their voters, and as they don't have fat wallets, learning from the Australian experience may be the cheapest way to avoid mistakes. So what should be the next steps? It seems to me that you need to get your retaliation in rst. If you are going to get companies like Nestlé saying they will only source their cereals from places with sustainable water supplies, it is not just a matter of convincing Nestlé's management that Australia's water management is the most sustainable in the world. You need to get involved in the debate and drive it forward to your advantage. You need to engage with the UN Water Compact, the WBCSD's water initiative, the CDP, the Water Footprint Network, pushing things forward to make sure that water sustainability remains at the top of the corporate environmental agenda. That way your investment in establishing water sustainability can become your competitive advantage in international markets. WJ The state-of-the-art-desal plant at Wonthaggi in Victoria.
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