The Global Business Issue of Water Conservation at the Source

by | Jul 12, 2011

It’s too often understated that for many countries, easy access to safe, clean water is a daily issue. According to the UN, less than one percent of the water on our planet is available fresh water. Yet here in North America, we seem to talk about water only when there’s too much of it, like during the recent floods in Mississippi. Not surprisingly, our behavior – as individuals, entire countries and organized businesses – is too often conditioned by the abundance of water resources where we live.

For example, when Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, went so far as to fly in a rocket ship to launch his “One Drop” foundation, the North American public seemed to pay relatively little attention to the cause itself.

On the country-level, Canada, where my company’s parent company is headquartered, represents about seven percent of the world’s renewable freshwater, and it also accounts for the highest water users per capita in the world.

When it comes to being more responsible with water use, how do businesses stack up?

Water-intensive businesses, like IBM, Coca-Cola, BASF, to name a few, have already implemented a water management strategy, and for good reason. The industrial sector represents the third largest user of water, behind agricultural and electrical production.  It just makes sense that industry shoulders a social responsibility of managing this resource.

My colleague Dr. Roger Gaudreault, the corporate director of Scientific Development and Innovation at Cascades, is known for being a big proponent of conducting life cycle analyses (LCA) at their manufacturing plants to determine the potential environmental impact of water consumption.

He often refers to “water compensation,” i.e. the loss of functionality or usage that would have been otherwise associated with the quantity and quality of available water.  Imagine a production mill whose process water flowed in from and out to a river source.  If the quantity and/or quality of water returned to the river after usage is worse than the watershed downward, deprived users might have to treat it to make it reusable for agriculture, domestic or other purposes.

This issue, again, needs to be understood not only in the context of the developed as well as developing countries.  The quantity of water to be compensated does not only refer to the region where it was taken, but also to the types of users and the country’s capacity to invest in technologies to adapt to water shortages. For example, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) about 80-95 percent of water is from desalination. The combined capacity of desalinization plants in the UAE is 8.4 million cubic meters of water per day. However, poor countries might not be able to compensate!

For Cascades Inc, LCA has proven it can be a “win-win-win.” The precedent has been set that companies can reduce both their water consumption and environmental footprint in a way that is also economically viable. Additional potential benefit of LCA/Water Indicator is that it is virtually possible to relocate the plant in other countries to quantify the potential impact on human health and water compensation in their respective geographical regions. Essentially, identifying geographic regions that are less burdensome in terms of water availability and consumption and more favorable to business growth can be managed strategically and in harmony with the principles of sustainable development.

A closed water system, where every drop of water taken is reused internally, also makes sense. Manufacturing plants are not always located near a water body, so the only option is to use drinking water in their manufacturing process. Each liter of water used is paid the same price as consumers. Hence, more water re-use means less money. And, because there is an additional cost for wastewater discharged to the sewer, a closed water system saves even more because a lesser quantity of raw material is lost in effluents.

At a time when the facts behind climate change are still being disputed by some, it will take a while before water is at the forefront of our daily preoccupations. According to the Nature Conservancy, more than two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages by 2025. Hopefully, as time passes, systems will become more clever and conservation-focused, and at the same time, mindsets will change to become more globally sensitive. Otherwise, it might take access to water becoming increasingly difficult and costly before everyone realizes that using less is more.

Elaine Tassoni, M.Sc., is the Communication and Sustainability Manager at Cascades Tissue Group’s head office.  Cascades Tissue is the fourth largest manufacturer of tissue paper in North America. It sells the North River line of environmentally preferable towel and tissue products, which are composed entirely of recycled paper and mostly from post-consumer material and are produced using Green-e certified wind energy and 80 percent less water than the North American paper industry average. Elaine can be reached at: or (450) 444-6459.

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