The cooperation key to sustainable industrial water use

Food and drink manufacturers are among those pursuing changes in water management. © luismmolina /

Industries of all types are making progress on sustainability, but stakeholders – including water managers – must work together to drive change. By Cheryl Davis and Eric Rosenblum.

In November 2015, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, the Mariana dam disaster killed 19 people and destroyed 1,500ha of riparian forest. The Fundao tailings dam, run by a company co-owned by mining giant Vale, failed, flooding the village of Bento Rodrigues with toxic sludge.

Just three years later, in January 2019, another Vale-owned dam failed in the same state, releasing mud and mine tailings downstream of the town of Brumadhino and causing more than 250 deaths.

These catastrophes contrast sharply with progress being made by companies working to minimise their impact on the water environment. For example, global clothing manufacturers Nike and H&M are following the guidelines of the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Foundation ( and now voluntarily substitute toxic cleaners and adhesives with safe components. Similarly, food and beverage companies, including PepsiCo and Nestle, train farmers in irrigation and cultivation practices to reduce water use and limit application of pesticides throughout their supply chains.

When it comes to water management, corporate behaviour ranges from laudable to criminal. Corporate sustainability goals are important in shaping this behaviour, but external influences also play a part. Government regulators, consumers, investors, consultants, environmental advocates, academic researchers, and even other businesses can all potentially pressure, inspire and persuade industry managers to use water sustainably, for their own good and the good of their communities.

In short, cooperation and dialogue are key to sustainable industrial water use. The recently released book Sustainable industrial water use: perspectives, incentives, and tools (IWA Publishing, 2021) provides a forum for the many voices in the emerging global dialogue. A selection of those voices, presented here, reveals some of the surprising results these interactions have achieved.

Regulations, standards, and aspirational goals

In most countries, government is responsible for protecting public watersheds. Strong, enforceable regulations limit industrial discharges to protect the environment and public health. Local utilities and government officials also play a part by inspecting industrial sites and enforcing water regulations with cautions and fines. Meanwhile, penalties can be complemented by incentives, such as Peru’s Certificado Azul programme, which rewards companies who use water efficiently.

In addition to government intervention, international standards can support action by industry action. The European Union’s ‘Best Available Techniques’ (BAT) set a baseline for preventing and controlling industrial pollution, while ambitious global objectives, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, guide corporate policymakers towards meaningful targets. As one Danish utility manager observed: “Complying with the intention behind the UN Sustainable Development Agenda means reexamining established corporate practices from a holistic perspective throughout the value chain.”

Even so, the effectiveness of government regulations and adherence to guidelines varies widely from country to country. In some places, regulations are administered rigorously, while in others they are scarcely acknowledged. Regulation of industry requires political will; it also depends upon an infrastructure that is able to identify and measure water use and wastewater discharge. Based on their experience in Pakistan, workers for the Swiss development firm Helvetas noted that “the government first needs to know the size of the enterprise, its water-related needs (quality and quantity) and the resources it can deploy to increase public water resources and capacities. Unfortunately, this information base is generally thin, especially in developing countries.”

Governments with experience in effective regulation can help bridge this ‘knowledge gap’. For example, as part of its Hydro Nation initiative, the Scottish Government built on the country’s relationship with Tanzania to provide technical assistance and support for improved water governance and asset management, partnering with global distiller Diageo’s Serengeti Breweries to help barley farmers use water more efficiently.

Giving credit where credit is due

Many governments encourage companies in emerging economies to use water sustainably by lending money and providing advice through national development banks. In Ecuador, investment bank Produbanco’s Green Lines programme financed automated machinery that enabled a milk processing facility to reduce its water consumption by more than 33%. In Morocco, the French Development Agency (AFD) and Germany’s DEG development finance institution teamed up to provide a $500m loan to help the national phosphorus company OCP implement an industrial water conservation and reuse programme.

DEG also worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to co-develop the Water Risk Filter, a tool that helps companies and investors understand and assess the physical, regulatory and reputational risks associated with their operations (operational risks) in specific river basins (basin risks).

In addition, DEG supports client companies by providing them with training to obtain certification in sustainable water management through the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s (AWS’s) Water Stewardship Standard. This standard is designed to contribute to good water governance through cooperative collection and interpretation of data, development of an appropriate plan, and transparent evaluation of performance. AWS certification depends on independent third-party verification, which is carried out by AWS-accredited conformity assessment bodies.

Other non-governmental agencies influence companies by holding them accountable for their actions, and by helping them find opportunities to improve water use throughout their supply chains. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform spewed 600 million litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating sea life and polluting miles of shoreline, the US National Wildlife Federation worked with government and media to ensure that the billions of dollars in penalties paid by BP were applied in ways that actually mitigated the damage. The Federation continues to assess the impacts of the spill and the progress of the restoration plan to provide long-term habitat enhancement.

The international aid organisation CARE illustrates a different approach taken by some NGOs. Partnering with several global companies, it works to improve conditions for women through better water management. CARE’s Water Smart Agriculture programme (supported by Coca-Cola) helps women farmers in Malawi and Ghana; the She Feeds the World initiative (supported by PepsiCo Foundation) teaches farmers in Egypt and Uganda how to irrigate more efficiently; and the Water and Women Alliance (Gap Inc) educates women cotton farmers in India about water conservation techniques, community leadership and business skills.

Designing change

Technological advances also boost industry’s ability to use water more sustainably. According to Dr Maria Concetta Tomei, senior scientist at the Water Research Institute of Italy’s National Research Council: “The current linear system of industrial manufacturing is now being succeeded by a new manufacturing paradigm that closes production cycles, recovering wastes and reusing them as resources.” Her own research includes the development of microbial fuel cells, and techniques to isolate and recover toxic contaminants in waste. Similarly, rather than recommend the cheapest engineering alternatives, professional consultants can guide their clients towards sustainable solutions that will prove more profitable in the long run. As Dr Art Umble, manager of Stantec’s wastewater practice, puts it: “The consultant can accelerate change by keeping clients informed about advances in the field, best practices and methods, connecting them with other companies that are overcoming the barriers, sharing knowledge and technology.”

Putting the pieces together

According to many industry managers, the problem is not a lack of technical solutions, but the need to create a ‘business case’ for sustainability. In that case, water policy analyst Dr Tom Chesnutt recommends that companies consider the increased market share that comes from boosting acceptance among retail customers who ‘buy green’ and at the same time avoiding the reputational risk of being labelled ‘anti-environmental’.

While certainly true for some companies, this approach may not work for all. In contrast to the ‘early adopters’ who pioneer sustainable water practices, and the ‘potential adopters’ who follow them, the ‘profiteers’ will continue to cut costs at the expense of the environment until they are prevented from doing so by effective regulations. The ‘resource limited’, on the other hand, may not fully understand the impact of their actions, or may lack the knowledge or the funds to change, unless they receive external support.

Overall, the combined efforts of governments and NGOs, investors and inventors have created new opportunities for companies to use water sustainably. For example, using analytical tools developed by NGOs, Dow Chemical decided to partner with local water managers to construct a membrane bioreactor so that it could reuse municipal effluent in its plant in Terneuzen, the Netherlands. In Ecuador, Lundin Gold met with local stakeholders in numerous ‘thematic roundtables’ to identify local people’s concerns about its operations and to reach agreement on how Lundin Gold could mitigate these risks. Actions to date have included water monitoring programmes and a biodiversity management programme in which flora and fauna were relocated during construction.

The road to sustainability is long and is complicated by the challenge of converting environmental policy made in the boardroom to pumps and plumbing in the boiler room. For water management by industry to improve at a global scale, support must come from academics and water professionals, while economic and social pressure is applied by government policymakers, community organisations and private citizens. This will inevitably lead to conflicts, but if all concerned speak openly about their differences, to find common ground, respectful conflict can bring us closer to the goal of protecting water for everyone. •

More information:

Sustainable industrial water use: perspectives, incentives, and tools, edited by Cheryl K Davis and Eric Rosenblum, is available as an Open Access ebook at

Cheryl Davis chairs IWA’s Specialist Group on Sustainability in the Water Sector. She consults on workforce reliability and sustainable use of water by industry, and worked for more than three decades as a manager with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Eric Rosenblum is an environmental engineer based in San Jose, California, specialising in helping cities and companies recycle their water, and managed public water and wastewater utilities in the Silicon Valley area of northern California.

Effluent reuse in the Netherlands

Dow Inc’s 2025 Sustainability Goals include seven related to water conservation and the preservation of watersheds. To pursue these goals, Dow applied the Aqueduct Global Water Tool to its manufacturing sites and identified six as water-stressed. Managers then began working to reduce freshwater intake at these sites by 20%, including the manufacturing site in Terneuzen, the Netherlands.

The Terneuzen site is in a watershed with sensitive wetlands, where water is scarce and rising sea levels threaten the freshwater supply. After developing a strategy to increase efficiency and to reuse its wastewater for evaporative cooling (20% of total site demand), Dow looked beyond its site boundary for alternative reuse options. This resulted in a unique collaboration with the City of Terneuzen, Evides Industriewater and the regional Water Board, which owns and operates the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

In 2007 the Terneuzen facility began taking secondary treated effluent from the city’s wastewater treatment plant. When it became apparent that the secondary effluent caused excessive biological growth in the interconnecting pipeline, Dow worked with Evides to install a new membrane bioreactor (MBR) at the municipal wastewater treatment plant. In addition to improving effluent quality, the MBR unit gave the City of Terneuzen additional treatment capacity. Today, 15% of the water demand for this facility is provided by effluent reuse, which Dutch law now exempts from additional discharge fees.