The problem is acute in Asia, where approximately 30 per cent of the population is facing water scarcity, which can lead to geopolitical tensions around water supply. Much of Asia’s water is unevenly distributed. In some regions, there is too much rainfall in one area, but not enough in another. In other regions, the challenge is that too much water falls in one month, and not enough in others.
India is home to 18 per cent of the world’s people, but they only have access to 4 per cent of the world’s water resources. Worryingly, population growth means that India has only 1,000 cubic metres of water per capita, a dramatic drop from 3,000-4,000 in 1950. Compounding this is the unique challenge of India’s rainfall – half of the country’s annual rain falls in just 15 days.
Improving water management begins with a clear focus on the biggest water consumers. Globally, these are: agricultural use at 59 per cent, municipal and domestic use at 23 per cent and industrial use at 18 per cent.
As investors, it’s our responsibility to own and engage with the companies showing water leadership by minimising the use of water in their operations or re-using water as much as possible. Our aim is to encourage and invest in the solutions to these enormous challenges. So which companies are making a difference?
With ever-growing demand for mobile phones, computers, smart appliances and vehicles, the world will need far more semiconductors – manufactured with huge volumes of ultrapure water. In an industry so water-reliant, excellent water management is not just a sustainability positive, but also a competitive advantage. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) now strives to re-use each droplet of water at least 3.5 times over in its factories, and in 2020 it recycled 86.4 per cent of water used, or some 173.0 million metric tonnes of water.
The company plans a 30 per cent reduction in water use per 12-inch equivalent wafer mask layer by 2030. Water conservation and recycling efforts include reclaiming water from air scrubbing systems in clean rooms and from cooling towers; capturing used ultrapure water; re-using aircon water; recycling rainwater; and channelling water into a renewal plant.
Although solar power is a key green energy source, keeping solar panels clean requires substantial amounts of water. In water-stressed India, an estimated 3-5 litres of water are required to clean one solar panel, rising to 7.8 litres in the arid areas ideal for solar farms.
As investors, we face the conundrum of investing in companies that are helping to solve climate change but are also potentially contributing to water stress. And that’s why water is a major engagement point for us. Solar companies have started to use robots to “dry clean” solar panels, using soft brushes and air flow to remove dust, so the panels can absorb maximum sunlight. Azure Power in India aims to adopt this robotic dry cleaning on all feasible sites by 2023. With robots, the company has been able to reduce net water consumption from 122 litre per MWh in 2017-18 to 30 litre per MWh currently. It aims for net water neutrality by 2023.
The cement industry is hugely water hungry, requiring water to cool machinery and equipment, as well as exhaust gases. Water is also used in systems that manage emissions, like wet scrubbers, and for a range of other requirements. The high-water usage is becoming a major focal point for the industry and investors. Where cement manufacturers operate in water-scarce areas, this issue is magnified. The challenge for investors is that although cement is an attractive way to invest in a country’s development, given its use in vital infrastructure, cement manufacturing is both carbon and water intensive.
We have engaged extensively with UltraTech Cement, also in India, around how it manages its water footprint, particularly as some of its facilities are located in water-stressed regions. The company currently gives back nearly four times the water it uses and has a target of being five times water positive by 2024. The company focuses on water reuse and recycling and has a zero water-discharge policy. It also builds rainwater harvesting structures to minimise the draw on local water supplies.
These companies are making it clear that industry need not be just the source of the problem; it can also provide innovative and sustainable solutions in order to protect and conserve one of our most essential, irreplaceable and precious resources – clean water.
David Smith, senior investment director at abrdn.