The cement sector, which until a few years ago was notorious for guzzling millions of gallons of water and spewing pollutants into the environment, has turned the situation around. Technology has enabled the cement companies to migrate to platforms that require less water intake. Previously, cement manufacturing was based on wet process, but now it has switched over to dry process. That has reduced the water footprint of cement factories considerably.
Water scarcity in rural India has always been an issue that successive governments since Independence have failed to address. When elections arrive, political parties promise a lot, but post-elections most of the promises are pushed to the backburner. Adequate water supply for domestic consumption and farming still remains a dream for the masses.
Metropolitian cities that were privileged to have some sort of adequacy in access to clean drinking water have begun to feel the pinch due to over-consumption and, to a great extent, wastage.
In 2018-2019, mega Indian cities such as Chennai and Bangalore highlighted the severity of water crisis in the country. In 2019, 330 million people in the country were affected by drought. In India 85 per cent rural, 48 per cent urban and up to 70 per cent agricultural are met by groundwater.
As per the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report released by the Niti Aayog in 2018, 21 major cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, would be hitting zero groundwater levels by 2020 and nearly 100 million people would be affected. Around 12 per cent of India's population is already living the "Day Zero" scenario. The CWMI report also stated that by 2030, the country's water demand would be twice the volume of available supply.
Generally speaking, access to clean drinking water is still a dream for a large part of rural India. Water for irrigation and agriculture, depleting groundwater levels and worsening water scarcity are a major concern. However, in her 2020-2021 Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman laid great emphasis on availability of drinking water. The government pledged Rs11,500 crore for Jal Jeevan Mission aimed at "Water Security For All by 2024".
"Water stress related issues are now a serious concern across the country. Our government is proposing comprehensive measures for 100 water-stressed districts. Very focused safe water (Jal Jeevan Mission) and comprehensive sanitation programme (Swachch Bharat Mission) have been launched to support the health vision," Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi.
He also stated that his government had approved Rs3.60 lakh crore for Jal Jeevan Mission, which would focus on augmenting local water sources, recharging existing sources and promoting water harvesting and desalination. Cities with over a million population will be encouraged to meeting this objective during the current year itself. During 2020-21, the scheme would be provided budget of Rs11,500 crore.
Groundwater extraction alarming While the world struggles against climate change, sustainability on the broader platform and water availability at the micro level require more attention as they affect the common man on a daily basis. In water-stressed areas everything revolves around making sure bare minimum water requirement is met. It is still a common scene in rural India where women walk long distances to fetch just a pot of drinking water.
According to reports, in the past few decades there has been a massive increase in groundwater extraction. India is the largest user of groundwater as it pumps out 25 per cent of the world's groundwater reserves.
The first question that arises is the budget allocation of Rs11,500 crore enough to address the piped drinking water issue? Before analysing the numbers and the inadequacies, let us look at companies, especially the cement manufacturers, in India that have taken some very welcome steps in the past few years to become water neutral. If the cement industry, which is one of the most water-intense industry, can achieve water positivity, why not the other industries?
Pearl Tiwari, President (CSR & Sustainability) at Pearl Tiwari, points out the severity of the issue by saying, "Water was a perennial issue for people of Saurashtra in Gujarat even in the 1980s and 1990s, with inadequate rainfall and cyclical droughts. Being a coastal area, the salinity level in groundwater was high. Ambuja Cements has the mother plant in that area. Since the water supplied by tankers was impure, the risk of water-borne diseases was a challenge. Women had to walk 5 to 7 km to fetch water for domestic."
How the cement factories worked towards water neutrality
Water neutrality or water positivity is when you preserve/recycle more water than you consume. Cement factories which are spread across various geographical locations faced water issues not only for their operations but also for the communities living around their plants. Some of them are situated on the coast where water salinity is a big concern. In some states like Rajasthan, where less rainfall (or no rain fall for two to three consecutive years) worsened the situation.
It is true that for any cement manufacturing company which is water intensive, a water neutral programme cannot be successful until the initiatives are taken beyond the boundaries of the cement plants.
Technology has enabled the cement companies to migrate to platforms that require less water intake. Previously, cement manufacturing was based on wet process, but now it has switched over to dry process. That has reduced the water footprint of cement factories considerably, limiting their consumption for captive power plant operations ranging from 16MW to 45 MW. Such plants were put up earlier by companies to meet their energy requirements. However, cement manufacturers are now opting for heat recovery plants, which are more sustainable and cost effective. The second major water requirement is from the residential colonies in and around cement factories for domestic use. Third requirement is for dust suppression, dust quenching and horticulture.
The cement plants that have initiated water positive programmes have adapted to various technologies and ways. Ambuja Cement, which is water positive 8, had started the work almost a couple of decades back. Dalmia Cement, which is currently three times water positive, has adopted the process almost half a decade ago. Both the companies have set sustainable targets for the next decade.
Water neutrality programmes include water storage, rainwater harvesting, groundwater level recharging, recycling of waste water, availability of potable water to the communities, setting up of check dams and water storage facilities.Interestingly, most of these initiatives are done with the involvement of the community and local body officials.
Ashwani Pahuja, Chief Sustainability Officer, Dalmia Cement (Bharat), points out, "Initially there was resistance from the locals until they were made aware of the benefits. Now the participation from local communities is much higher than when the programme was initiated. For water recycling, the challenge was the availability of technologies. Gradually, we overcame the challenge after the arrival of better technologies in the country, particularly air-cooled condensers, etc."
As a first step, most of the cement companies harvested water in the rehabilitated mining pits and cleaned it in the demineralisation (DM) plant before supplying as potable water. The water which is cycled through the DM plant and RO plant goes through a boiler. Similarly, waste water is used for dust suppression and horticultural activities. Also, water from the factory colonies is treated and used for gardening and farming.
Detailing the achievement, Tiwari adds, "The project included creation of check-dams on the existing rivers, digging of water harvesting pits, interlinking of canals and thereby creation of a sweet water buffer. The result was very encouraging and positive. The saline line which had advanced about 15 km inwardly, was pushed back by about 8 km. Over the last 19 years, 20 to 25 villages spread along 65 to 70 km of coastline have been covered under the project."
Technology helps reduce water spend
Besides water conservation and water recycling programmes, the cement factories also devised new and innovative ways to reduce water consumption during the making of products (in this case of cement).
For casting one square foot of roof it requires high volume of water especially during the curing period. Typically, one square foot of roof requires 12 litres of water, so 1000 sq feet will require at least 12,000 litres of water for curation. With the aim of bringing down this water intake, the companies have introduced modular curing solution, where the roof once cast is covered with SDP sheets, a kind of plastic to retain the required moisture for the curation period. This helps with no additional water requirement after concreting. This method also can be adopted for column constructions as well.In simple terms if adopted by construction fraternity, this can save lakhs of litres of water.
Ashwani Pahuja of Dalmia Cement states, "The target is to become at least 20 times water positive by 2025, which means the company aims to achieve four times in the next five years. This still requires the additional implementation of water prudent potential of 31 million m³. It also means increasing rainwater harvesting, increasing the water sources, recycling of water and much more."
While water remains the focal issue, most the cement factories are also looking at more sustainable ways to contribute to the fight against climate change. Adopting renewable energy, implementing energy-efficiency programmes, so on and so forth. Appreciable are the initiatives taken by the cement sector, which is always criticised for huge water spend and pollution. If the cement sector can contribute to fight against water scarcity, other industries, too, can take a cue and embrace water saving and water conservation technologies.
- RENJINI LIZA VARGHESE