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Being water-smart must become the new normal for business

While load shedding continues to keep energy security top of mind for South Africans, the need for collective action to address a looming water crisis has recently been raised at the highest level. In a recent statement coinciding with the announcement of a R900bn Water Master Plan by Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that: "Unless we take drastic measures to conserve water sources and promote efficient use, water insecurity will become the biggest developmental and economic challenge facing this country. Our current energy challenges will seem small by comparison."
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The Water Master Plan is a significant milestone in our national response to water scarcity, but it is not a silver bullet. Ultimately its aims can only be realised through collective action – and that means all water users taking responsibility for being water-smart, both at a household and industry level.

With drought being an almost constant factor over the last five years, RCL FOODS, for example, has had to see and do things differently to reduce and reuse freshwater supplies and even find new sources of water.

As World Water Day approaches on March 22, we’ve identified five key lessons to share from our own journey towards becoming water-smart.

1. Commit to a vision and set targets


Every business needs a long-term vision for water use, linked to its purpose and values and not just a box to be ticked. Clear, measurable targets need to be set. We made a commitment to sustaining resources as a key pillar of our Sustainable Business Drive. We set targets to reduce water use in our Chicken processing and Logistics operations by 50% and 60% respectively by 2025, and to achieve a 30% improvement in our water use efficiency in Sugar by 2023.

2. Break with the norm and be innovative


It takes curiosity and a certain amount of bravery to break with the established norm, but seeing and doing things differently is the only way to stay relevant and responsive to the water challenges in South Africa. As a starting point, businesses should take a holistic look at their water usage patterns, reviewing behaviours that are contributing to water wastage and challenging fresh thought around how to reduce, reuse or find alternative sources of water.

We created a Water Roadmap detailing action across these three dimensions. To reduce our water consumption we have focused on using water more efficiently across all our business processes while investing in key initiatives in our most water-intensive areas. We have begun reusing treated wastewater from some of our food production processes for irrigation and cleaning purposes. Where drinking-quality water is not required, we have started to introduce alternative water sources through rainwater harvesting, borehole drilling, collection of refrigeration defrost water and even piping in treated greywater.

3. Be willing to invest strategically


Water-saving strategies often involve some degree of initial (and possibly ongoing) investment, so businesses should look for ways in which an investment can yield more than just a water-saving benefit. Through our waste-to-value plants in Worcester and Rustenburg, we are making our chicken processing operations more water-wise and energy self-sufficient at the same time. In the agriculture space, converting to more water-efficient irrigation systems has also helped us save electricity and improve our cane yields through better management.

4. Collaborate to achieve more


Collaborating with government and other stakeholders is important because it enables individual businesses to have a greater impact. Securing municipal permission to pipe treated effluent to our Logistics site in Cape Town was a major boost to our water-saving efforts during the drought. And in the construction of our waste-to-value plants, our joint venture partner Green Create not only provided key expertise but financed the project upfront - a huge win for us.

Internal collaboration is essential too. Operating units need to be aligned to the water-saving vision and be willing to change some of their processes to deliver results. Employees also need to take accountability for limiting non-essential water use.

5. Celebrate the small wins


Conserving our precious water resources is an ongoing, cumulative, multi-faceted process in which every initiative, every behaviour change, every drop counts. Celebrate the small wins, acknowledge those who’ve gone the extra mile and tell the stories of progress, no matter how small. With each new rainwater tank that is installed and each water-saving innovation that is introduced, we can all do that little more towards being water-smart.
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About the author

Ettienne Thiebaut is Group Sustainability Executive at RCL FOODS. An industrial engineer by training, he has extensive experience in operational efficiency, project development and sustainability reporting. He is skilled in waste, energy and water management, strategic planning and has a passion for circular economy.
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