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Take a look at the pursuit of sustainability spearheaded by Indian industries, leading to clean and
abundant water for all.
It is truly an exciting time for those of us with a "green" outlook. The last few years have seen
an unprecedented focus on sustainable living: be it more news and educational content that builds
awareness; citizen-led initiatives and NGOs; businesses stepping forward to adopt sustainable energy
and sustainable practices; and even governments, politicians and bureaucrats putting aside
accelerated development to do the right thing for the environment, and in doing so, for humanity
itself. It's a really, really good start!
The most heartening examples are the Paris Agreement (where countries voluntarily committed
themselves to Nationally Determined Contributions) and the UN initiated Sustainable Development
Goals. India has set some pretty aggressive targets for cleaner air and better land use under the
Paris Agreement NDCs; and looking at current policies, it seems we are well on our way to achieving
these contributions ahead of schedule. If all goes as planned, we will be the model for the
developing world to follow, by being the first to bring together economic growth with ecological
On the surface, this is great news. However, it leaves out one very important area of focus: Water.
The World Economic Forum report has highlighted water as the top risk in terms of impact. In India,
the per capita availability of water has declined by over 60% (from 3000 cubic metres to 1123) over
the last 50 years. To put this into perspective, the global average is 6000 cubic metres per capita.
With increasing population, industry and agriculture, the demand for water is only expected to
rise. The aquifers however, are not. By 2050, the average water demand per capita is expected to be
1,447 cu.m; higher than the availability we have today. This is scary. Particularly in cities, where
the demand is 3 times that of rural demand. Already, Delhi and Chennai are fed with water supply
lines that span hundreds of kilometres.
It's easy to think of water as a renewable resource, especially for those of us who live along the
coast where it rains heavily during the monsoons. After all, each year we hear of flooding somewhere
and the cost of water in cities is really, really low. For most of us, the water bill isn't a
deterrent to wasting water. So it's easy to assume that it isn't a problem. Let's rectify that here.
For the water table to fill back up, water needs to stand and drain downwards through layers of
soil and rock, to reach the water table that provides us groundwater. In our tarred and cemented
cities, these spaces are limited to parks and green lungs. In rural areas where agriculture is the
mainstay, traditional farming practices don't address this new challenge. In all our history, we've
never had to worry about groundwater replenishment! Watershed management is new to farmers, and
adoption is still low.
The same thing goes for rivers as most of our rivers depend on rains and glacial melt as their
water source. The rate at which we are consuming our rivers, far outstrips the rate of
replenishment. Case in point: the Kaveri river. What used to be a mighty Kaveri, is now a ghost of
its glorious past. And it is not the only one.
The only tenable solution we have then is conservation and recycling: if we can't replenish the
source, let's at least diminish the rate at which we consume. While as individuals, we can
contribute immensely to conservation; the real change will come from manufacturing industries. After
all, in the larger scheme of things, it is industry that plays a pivotal role in increased demand
for water, as well as water pollution. An entire city may switch to eco-friendly detergents and
non-chemical cleaning products in homes, but the impact will still pale before a steel plant going
the Zero Liquid Discharge way!
Sustainable Development Goal target 6.3 requires that by 2030 we "improve water quality by reducing
pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials,
halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse
globally." It makes sense, as less polluted water takes fewer resources to recycle safely. Progress
towards this target will also help achieve the SDGs on sustainable consumption and production
pattern (SDG 12), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), safe water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and
clean energy (SDG 7), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), life below water (SDG 14), and
life on land (SDG 15). One target, many desirable outcomes!
Which is why it is so important to talk about what Tata
Steel is doing. Steelmaking requires large quantities of water, which often comes from rivers.
In fact, this is why most steel plants are located beside rivers as it's difficult to meet their
water needs further inland. Steelmaking also involves processes that result in highly contaminated
water, which is then often released into the same rivers as effluents; causing any cities downstream
to spend enormous resources in making the water suitable for human consumption.
Tata Steel, however, uses their 4R methodology to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recharge their water
supply. In order to reduce freshwater consumption, they conform to a water audit
and have real-time, online monitoring. By reusing drain water for low-end
applications like coke quenching, blast furnace quenching, dust suppression, tyre washing and pellet
and sinter cooling, they reduce their consumption of freshwater considerably. Recycling
happens at the Central Effluent Treatment Plant and the output is clarified water.
Recharging is done via aggressive rainwater harvesting measures, which allows
rainwater to do what nature designed it for! In fact, Tata Steel had commissioned the creation of
the Dimna Lake in Jamshedpur as a catchment area in the rainy season. Today, it has the holding
capacity of 6,292 million gallons of water. A store large enough to supply 14% of Jamshedpur's
annual water demand!
In sum, the 4R methodology has helped Tata Steel in reducing its overall freshwater consumption by
almost 35% over the last five years! The flagship steel plant in Jamshedpur consumes the same amount
of water as it did when it had just half the steel producing capacity compared to today. And their
efforts continue to bring further improvements. It will be interesting to see what other benchmarks
Tata Steel is able to set in the coming years.
This makes for great news not just because of what they've accomplished; but what it means to
others in the field. Tata Steel has shown that it is economically viable to be ecologically
sustainable. They are continuing to invest and experiment further, to get to a state of Zero Liquid
Discharge. They're also looking for viable substitutes for freshwater, even exploring possibilities
with municipal wastewater. Needless to say, we're watching them eagerly to see how this develops!
After all, sustainability is no longer about the environment alone, it is about economic survival
too. Businesses of the future understand this, even if businesses of today may not.
- In collaboration with Firstpost
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