Leveraging Water Data to Make a Global Impact

A recent Water Industry Forum explored how data collected from water facilities can be used to address global water scarcity and cleanliness challenges.


By the year 2030, global water demand is expected to outpace sustainable supply by 40 percent, according to the UN. Yet water is essential not only to our industry’s progress and success, but to human health, safety, and quality of life.

“Clean water is an ethical imperative,” notes William S. Cohen, former US Defense Secretary. “We have data—we’re just not acting wisely.” Cohen made the remarks at a recent Water Industry Forum sponsored by Nalco Water, an Ecolab company, held at the company’s new Water University facility in Naperville, IL. Water University is a hands-on training facility designed to help Nalco Water clients and associates develop and improve water management practices.

Resource conservation is an area that has long interested Cohen; he told Forum attendees that, as a young congressman from Maine in 1973, one of the first bills he introduced was a plan to give tax credits to companies for conserving energy. He says the bill was “laughed down” at the time; five years later, it was the law. He sees a similar dynamic happening for water policy. “We need to be ‘hydro-politically’ effective,” Cohen said. “Water can be a political force, and even impact global security and geopolitics. We need to address and solve water problems around the world, and America has a leading role to play.”

Of course, resource management requires data—and managing a critical global resource like water is a daunting proposition. Because Ecolab (Nalco Water’s parent company) serves a range of industries that depend on water resources for continued, sustainable operation, the company is well-positioned to collect and manage the vast amounts of data that will be necessary to make a difference.

Nalco Water currently has 36,000 sensors at customer sites around the world collecting 27 billion data points annually. The company says that Microsoft’s cloud solution is helping it unlock the potential for this data by enabling automated, real-time monitoring, visibility into multiple systems, and data-driven solutions to customer challenges.

“We’re connecting the data we’re collecting using Microsoft cloud technology to enable more comprehensive monitoring of multiple systems across multiple facilities,” says Julie Lindley, marketing director, Commercial Digital Solutions for Nalco Water. “We believe that Big Data—translated into actionable insights—will increasingly be an enabler to drive more sustainable operations. Companies that harness data-driven, actionable, and predictive insights to inform proactive decisions will have a competitive advantage.”

These data can be used to both address global challenges and drive business growth, according to Christophe Beck, president of Nalco Water. At the Water Industry Forum, Beck noted that the gap between water supply and demand is steadily increasing. By 2050, water demand in the manufacturing sector is likely to increase by 400 percent. It’s the area of greatest increases in demand, but also of greatest opportunity.

“Our ambition is to save water equivalent to the annual drinking needs of more than one billion people—that would be 300 billion gallons saved by 2030,” Beck said. To do that, the company is working “to leverage the massive amounts of data we’re collecting from water facilities around the world.”

The company is already on its way toward those goals; in 2015, Ecolab solutions helped conserve more than 142 billion gallons of water. A core technology is 3D TRASARTM technology, which combines chemistry, remote services and sophisticated monitoring and control to help users reduce, reuse, and recycle water throughout their operations. In another example, Carustar, a manufacturer of recycled paperboard and packaging solutions, replaced its reclaimed water source with process water using Nalco Water PARETOTM Mixing Technology, saving more than 82 million gallons of water since 2012.

Beck said that the Water University facility was designed to help customers maintain continuous improvement in water resource management. Featuring a customer experience center plus a hands-on training facility and wet lab, Water University is home to more than 200 researchers working to solve water challenges. During 2018, more than 2,200 visitors are expected from around the world, including employees, customers, and the public.

There is a wide range of water efficiency within manufacturing. In the paper industry, the difference between high- and low-performing users can be as much as 10X. Identifying the critical needs and putting the technology/support in place is a good first step, but isn’t sufficient. In a recent Water Management Survey conducted by Ecolab in partnership with GreenBiz, 82 percent of respondents strongly agreed that they are not sufficiently using advanced measurement tools and strategies (see sidebar.)

Survey results helped Ecolab identify four crucial barriers to turning data into actionable insights as well as recommendations for potential data-driven solutions.

Barrier 1: In many areas, water costs are too low to show a good return on investment. Solution: Capturing the real value of water can justify needed investments. Ecolab has developed the Water Risk Monetizer, a publicly available tool that can help companies use data to calculate the full value of incoming and outgoing water and assess their water-related risks.

Barrier 2: Water scarcity is more acute in some locations, yet often corporate goals are set for the entire organization. This means that efforts may not be targeted where they can make the most difference. Solution: Context-based water goals can show better results. According to the Pacific Institute, “Context-based metrics and targets recognize the particular challenges present in each basin, allowing for physical and social thresholds and tracking water use relative to basin thresholds and availability.”

Barrier 3: Some organizations prioritize energy over water. Solution: Energy and water are not competing priorities; it takes considerable energy to move, treat, heat, and cool water. More efficient use of water produces considerable reductions in energy use and helps organizations lower their climate change impact. The right data and metrics can help companies view water and energy management as one and the same.

Barrier 4: Water is a shared resource, but each organization acts alone. Solution: Collaboration at the local level with all users of the watershed can benefit all users. A notable example is The California Water Action Collaborative, a platform for businesses and NGOs to pursue collective action projects that will improve water security in California for people, business, agriculture, and nature.

“We are on a mission to drive a water awakening,” Doug Baker, chairman and CEO of Ecolab, said at the opening of Water University. “We think it’s important for society. It’s not only vital for commercial health—but for human health as well.”

Survey Highlights Need for Understanding, Action
Clean, sustainably available water is a business imperative for the industries that Ecolab serves. Yet the UN predicts that—due to glacial loss from climate change, population growth, increased consumption, and changes in diet and lifestyle—by 2030, global fresh water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent.

Emilio Tenuta, VP Corporate Sustainability, Ecolab, says the company wanted to better understand how large businesses are addressing water risk. Clearly, a gap existed between their customers’ water use reduction goals and actions taken to address global water challenges. Ecolab partnered with GreenBiz, a research consultancy, to survey C-suite leaders in a range of industries. The 2017 Water Management Survey includes responses from 184 companies with annual revenues of US$1 billion or more.

Tenuta discussed survey findings with attendees of a recent Water Industry Forum held at Nalco Water’s new Water University. “A large percentage of survey respondents in the industrial sector report that they’re not effectively accounting for the cost of water, or providing incentives for water-related projects,” Tenuta said.

He shared three key findings from the survey:

1. Water is an increasing priority (especially in consumer packaged goods), but it still is not a key factor in decision making.
2. Most companies (75 percent) have water-related targets—but there is still a need to integrate water into corporate decision making.
3. Of companies surveyed, 82 percent lack the tools and strategies to turn data into actionable insights.
Respondents cited a number of key drivers for improving water management. These include mitigating business risk (48 percent), meeting regulatory requirements (33 percent), saving money (30 percent), achieving internal goals (28 percent), and improving company brand. (See Figure 1 for breakdown by industry type.)

Fig. 1: Primary drivers for water management.

Other key takeaways from the survey include:
• 44 percent of companies are not accounting for the full cost of water.
• Most companies are not providing incentives and tools from corporate to site-level managers to build a comprehensive business case (see Figure 2.)
• 82 percent of companies report that they are not using advanced tools, such as analytics technology that can assess data to create actionable insights.

Fig. 2: Incentives are needed to build a business case for better water management.

An average of 43 percent of the companies surveyed agree with the statement “Over the next three years, my company will likely actively take steps to better manager water.” Survey results indicate that progress will depend on vast amounts of water data. “Better-connected technology and data-driven, actionable insights will enable us to help our customers more effectively reuse and recycle water,” said Nalco Water’s Julie Lindley, marketing director, Commercial Digital Solutions. “Because we can continuously monitor use throughout a customer’s operation, we can better ensure system reliability and productivity. This gives customers confidence in a less water-reliant process.”