Environmental Damnation #19: Water

Water, water everywhere
and not a drop to drink

There are dozens upon dozens of challenges being thrown at you as a Procurement professional on a daily basis. We’ve said it before and we will say it again. These challenges will cause you nothing but grief and agony as these damnations, collectively, do nothing but divert your attention from critical strategic planning, (should-cost) modelling, and supply assurance.

Fresh Water is quickly becoming the scarcest resource. While nearly 70% of the globe is covered by water, less than 2.5% of it is fresh. Moreover, only 1% of our freshwater is easily accessible, with the rest trapped in glaciers, snowfields, and the earth itself. In essence, as pointed out in a National Geographic article, at most 0.007% of the planet’s water is available to fuel the planet’s 7 Billion people. At least 1 Billion people worldwide lack access to fresh water, and up to 3 Billion face water scarcity issues at least one month of the year. And this situation is only going to get worse — by 2025, over 5 Billion people may be dealing with water scarcity. Not food scarcity — water scarcity. The only thing more important to life than water is air. So the fact that it is expected to be so scarce should be, to be blunt, scaring you sh!tl3ss.

But it’s not just we as individuals that need fresh water to drink (and bathe and, to some extent, clean), and the farms that need it to grow our food, but our organizations need it too. When it comes to modern production, water is needed to clean and cool modern production plants. For example, not only is it impossible to make semiconductors and modern computer microchips in anything other than an ultra-clean facility, but ultra-pure water is required during production. Chips, and the electrical pathways that power them, are built up in layers and need to be washed clean of the solvents and debris from the layer just completed before the next layer can be started. This can only be done with ultra-pure water — which is so pure that it is unsafe to drink (because water is the universal solvent and perfectly pure water would actually leach minerals and vitamins out of your body, instead of adding them as vitamin and mineral water does).

The production of ultra-pure water requires 12 filtration steps beyond reverse osmosis, a process that is often used to turn ocean water into drinkable water. Each of these steps requires as input water of a certain purity. And even reverse osmosis requires water of a certain purity, or the equipment has to be shutdown and cleaned too often, making regular, cost-effective production difficult.

But it’s not just semiconductor and microchip plants that require fresh, clean, water — data centres, which use water cooling, do too. Salt water corrodes the cooling system, and a single leak could short out an entire facility (if it was over the main relay station). Even if your facilities don’t rely on freshwater, chances are that your suppliers’ facilities do. A lack of freshwater in your supply chain can result in unexpected disruptions, and if it is needed for cooling plants that can overheat, even disasters.

And it might not be so bad if this was the extent of the risk. But a lack of freshwater can cripple an entire economy. As per this recent article over on EurActiv.com, the entire German economy is vulnerable to global (fresh) water scarcity.

According to an author of a recent WWF Study (in German), released last August, many German economic sectors are both responsible for and affected by the international water crisis, from the food sector to the auto and fashion industries. (Almost 9,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton in Pakistan!)

Even Southern Europe is running out of water. Currently, 80% of water is used for agriculture in the region, and in some of these countries, there is not enough groundwater and desalinated seawater is needed to make up the difference.

And the water shortage is further contributing to the climate change that may have caused it. As pointed out in Wikipedia, the resulting aquifer drawdown (and pumping of fossil groundwater from below the surface of the earth) increases the total amount of water within the hydrosphere subject to transpiration and evaporation, which upsets the climatic balance in ways yet to be understood.

And if you’re not preparing for the coming water shortage now, when it hits, it may be too late. You barely have time to get a drink, and now you have to ensure that the entire supply chain will have enough to drink in the coming years. And when you are surrounded by fire, this is not easy to do.

So what should you be doing? If your facility requires large amounts of fresh water, don’t depend on local city infrastructure to deliver it to you. Plan to build your own pumps and filtration systems to draw water from nearby lakes or underground wells. And if the facility is in a region that regularly experiences water storage, consider producing excess capacity and selling to nearby factories to reclaim your investment sooner rather than later.