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Multi-Billion Dollar Water Sector Offers Business Opportunities

Last updated on July 4th, 2018 at 08:28 am

The gap between global water demand and global water supply is widening. Already more than half of the people in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), live under conditions of “water stress” (i.e., the demand for water exceeds supply) according to the World Bank and a report by the United Nations reveals that the world could face a 40% water shortfall by 2030. Demand for water is expected to grow by nearly one-third by 2050 according to a 2018 World Water Development Report by the United Nations.

Yet while water demand is projected to grow, earth’s water supply is limited. Just 1% of all earth’s water is fit for human use according to the National Groundwater Association, and 99% of this is derived from groundwater, 0.86% from lakes and 0.02% from rivers.

Earth’s total groundwater supply is estimated at 5.5 million cubic miles (equal to about 23 million cubic kilometers). However, groundwater is being depleted faster than it is being replenished due to a rapidly increasing population and increasing urbanization. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites indicate that 13 of the world’s 37 biggest aquifers are being depleted due to irrigation, industrial usage and human consumption (groundwater supplies about 50% of all drinking water worldwide) faster than they are being replenished by rainfall. Climate change has affected rainfall patterns and as a consequence, the availability of groundwater resources will be impacted in the decades to come.

Of the 13 aquifers, eight aquifer systems are “overstressed” which means water is being withdrawn faster than it is being naturally recharged. The most overstressed aquifer is the Arabian aquifer system which lies underneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other overstressed aquifers are the Indus Basin in Pakistan and India, and the Murzu-Djado Basin in Africa. The other five aquifer systems are “extremely” or “highly” stressed, which means they are being recharged by some rainfall but not enough to enough to offset withdrawals. California’s Central Valley is one of the five aquifer systems under this category.

The result has been a steady decline in the volume of renewable water resources per capita from 28,377 m3 per person per year in 1992 to 19,804 m3 per person per year in 2014, which corresponds to a roughly 30% decline over the last 22 years according to data from Aquastat.

Addressing the world’s impending water crisis demands better water management practices such as through the adoption of water recycling as is done in Singapore and Israel and to make water intensive sectors more efficient. This opens considerable opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors in the global water sector. A report by investment firm RobecoSAM expects market opportunities related to the water sector to reach US$ 1 trillion by 2025.

Smart irrigation

Global annual ground water withdrawals are estimated at 982 cubic kilometers a year according to estimates by the National Groundwater Association. By sector, agriculture is the largest user of groundwater, accounting for about 70% of groundwater withdrawals. Household use accounts for about 10% of groundwater withdrawals.

By country, India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, China is the second largest and the United States is third.

Bar chart showing the top 15 countries with the largest estimated groundwater extractions in 2010, breakdown by sector (%): agriculture, domestic use and industrial use . The top 15 countries are (in order), India, China, United States, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Syria, Japan, Thailand, and Italy. Data from the National Groundwater Association.

The world’s growing population will lead to growing water usage while rising urbanization will increase per capita water and food consumption, particularly meat consumption. Food production is water intensive and meat-based products are among the most water-intensive sectors in the food industry. About 15,400 liters of water is required to produce one kilogram of beef and 5,988 liters to produce one kilogram of pork. By comparison just about 2,500 liters of water is required to produce one kilogram of rice.

As incomes rise and meat consumption sees a corresponding increase for the one billion plus population in India and China, which are already the world’s largest groundwater using nations, the water demand-supply mismatch will widen. This suggests the global demand for water will increase exponentially in the decades to come. Without improved water-use efficiency measures, agricultural water consumption is expected to grow by about 20% globally by 2050.

Smart irrigation solutions for agriculture are expected to help increase efficiency in water intensive sectors such as agriculture. Driven by expanding farming operations, an increasing need to increase farm profit, and government initiatives to promote water conservation, smart irrigation, which is a branch of the broader agtech sector, holds considerable growth potential particularly in India, China and the United States where over 50% of extracted groundwater is used by the agriculture sector.

92% of groundwater extraction from India’s overstressed Indus Basin is from the agriculture sector according to analysis by Earth Security Group.

Israeli agtech startup CropX offers a cloud-based smart irrigation solution for agriculture. The integrated software and hardware platform helps farmers increase yields by saving water and energy. On-field purpose-made sensors monitor soil moisture and gather data which is sent to CropX’s cloud platform where it is analyzed by CropX software which then updates the farmer through a mobile app on the farmer’s smartphone.  The farmer is then able to control the amount of water to each plant eliminating the need to water the whole field at one time thereby preventing water wastage through over watering and improving crop yields by maintaining optimal soil moisture levels.

Smart water solutions

Household consumption accounts for 10% of global groundwater withdrawals, the volume of which is likely to increase in the years ahead drive by population growth and urbanization. Smart water solutions for domestic use are expected to help optimize household water consumption such as by reducing wastage of water.

About 30% of global water supply is lost through leakage costing water utilities US$ 14 billion annually according to the World Bank. Wasted water, which is called non-revenue water (NRW), is a problem not just in developing countries but in developed ones too. London loses 25% of water through leakage, Hong Kong wastes 32.5%, Norway loses 32%, and the United States loses 14%-18%.

Such losses are avoidable. Countries that have comparatively better rates of water loss include Tokyo which loses about 2%, and Singapore which loses about 5%.

Consequently, the market for smart water solutions which monitor, detect and reduce leakage is a potential growth opportunity.

Research firm MarketsandMarkets projects the global smart water management market will grow from US$ 8.46 billion in 2016 to US$ 20.10 billion in 2021, representing a CAGR of 18.9% driven by a growing need to reduce NRW losses, sustainable use of energy, regulatory compliance and smart city projects.

Boston-based Inkwood Research projects the global smart water management market will expand at a CGAR of approximately 20.6% during the period 2017 – 2026 driven by smart city projects, aging water infrastructure and increasing need to reduce water loss. North America is expected to be the largest market. However Asia Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing market driven by countries such as China, India and Japan.

China and India, already the top two groundwater extracting nations in the world as illustrated in the chart above are likely to see greater water demand and water stress in the years ahead due to rising per capita income, increasing urbanization and industrialization. This is particularly true in China where water demand has been rapidly increasing and water supply has been rapidly dwindling, a situation that has been getting worse over the years; about one-fifth of China’s groundwater extraction is used for domestic purposes and according to research from the World Resources Institute, the percentage of land area in China facing high and extremely high water stress increased from 28% in 2001 to 20% in 2010.

The over-extraction of groundwater is impacting China not just through growing water scarcity risk but also increasing ground subsidence, i.e., sinking of land caused by the excessive removal of oil, natural gas or in China’s case, groundwater. According to a report released in 2012, more than 50 Chinese cities suffer ground subsidence issues.

Israeli startup TakaDu offers a cloud-based water management software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution that uses IoT, big data analytics and algorithms to help utility companies cut NRW losses by reducing leakage and supply interruptions, and anomaly detection  and automatic early warning anomalies.

TakaDu has deployed Water Network Monitoring solutions for a number of water utility companies including Portuguese water utility Águas de Cascais (AdC), Australian water company Hunter Water Corporation, and Chilean to water supplier Aguas de Antofagasta.

Industrial water treatment and recycling

About 20% of global water consumption is for industrial use and roughly 75% of industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2014.

Certain types of fuels require more water to produce than others. For instance, coal is among the most water-intensive fuels while natural gas is among the least water intensive. Coal production requires 10 times more water per ton of oil equivalent than natural gas production. Shale gas production requires 10 times more water per ton of oil equivalent than conventional natural gas production.

Coal extraction and refining is a very water intensive process and in China the world’s largest coal producer, the impact of coal production on the country’s water resources is already evident. China’s overstressed North China Aquifer serves 11% of the country’s population, 13% of the country’s agricultural production and a whopping 70% of the country’s coal production.

Yet, with coal accounting for about 40% of the world’s generated energy, it is likely to continue playing a role in the world’s energy mix going forward, particularly in China, India, the United States and Australia which are the world’s largest, second-largest, third-largest and fourth-largest coal producing nations respectively, and all four of which face water shortage issues; the Indus Basin in northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed in the world while California’s Central Valley aquifer has been labeled as “highly stressed” according to studies led by the University of California using data from NASA’s GRACE satellites.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, water managers in 40 out of 50 U.S. states expect water shortages in some portions of their states in the next decade.

This opens opportunities for industrial water treatment solutions. The industrial water treatment and recycling market is projected to grow by over 50% from around US$ 7billion in 2015 to US$ 11 billion in 2020 according to a report by Global Water Intelligence.

Much of today’s wastewater treatment involves treating wastewater, or effluent, and returning the treated effluent to groundwater or aquifers. Water reuse or water recycling however, sees the treated water being reused rather than being returned to the environment. Water reuse tends to be practiced in water-stressed countries such as Israel and Australia. Israel, the world’s leader in water recycling, over 70% of treated wastewater is reused.

Bar chart showing the percentage of treated wastewater reused, in 2015. Israel reuses 70% of all its treated wastewater. Australia reuses 19%, North America 4% and Brazil 1%.

It is likely that as water shortage issues grow, the market increasingly moves from water treatment to water reuse.

Much of reused water is currently used for agricultural purposes according to data from Global Water Intelligence and with agriculture accounting for 70% of global water withdrawals, the opportunity for water reuse technologies is evident particularly in countries such as India, China and the United States which are the world’s top three largest groundwater extracting nations and agriculture accounts for over half of water withdrawals in all three countries.

Pie chart showing global treated wastewater reuse, market share by application. 32% of the world's treated wastewater was reused for agricultural irrigation, 20% for landscape irrigation, 19.3% for industrial use, 8.3% for non-potable urban uses, 8% for environmental enhancements, 6.4% for recreational purposes, 2.3% for indirect potable reuse, 2.1% for groundwater recharge and 1.5% for other purposes.

Water desalination

Historically, desalination plants were concentrated in Gulf regions which have little alternatives for water supply. However, depleting water supplies and increasing water demand has forced countries outside the Gulf such as Australia, China, Japan, and the United States to build desalination plants to address impending water shortages. Desalination is in practice in more than 150 countries.

Yet, with increasing pollution, climate change, population growth and rising urbanization expected to drive water demand amid stagnant or falling water supplies, the demand for desalination technologies are expected to increase in the coming years. According to Hexa Research, the water desalination market is expected to grow to US$ 26.81 billion by 2025 driven by reverse osmosis.

There are two primary water desalination technologies; multi-stage flash distillation and reverse osmosis.  Flash distillation involves boiling seawater at low pressures (which requires less heat) and then condensing the resulting steam into salt-free water. This technology has been the most commonly used method for desalination over the past few decades and still remains so. According to Hexa Research, the market for multi-stage flash distillation is expected to grow at an 8,4% CAGR between 2014-2025.

Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, uses a membrane to filter salts from seawater to produce salt-free water. The technology was commercialized in the 1970s but was considerably costlier compared to multi-stage flash distillation; the membranes were not as effective in filtering salts and the membranes tended to wear out quickly.

However, over the past few years, there have been significant improvements that have helped increase its competitiveness and the fact that reverse osmosis consumes less energy than flash distillation (which has helped drive down desalination costs over the past few years) makes the technology more attractive. Consequently, new desalination plants are increasingly being built with membrane technology; according to the International Desalination Association (IDA), as much as 90% of new desalination capacity worldwide uses RO as opposed to distillation technologies. For instance in 2017, membrane technology accounted for 2.2 million m3/d of annual contracted desalination capacity while distillation technologies accounted for just 0.1 million m3/d.

The momentum is expected to continue; reverse osmosis is expected to be the fastest growing desalination technology going forward with Hexa Research predicting the market will be valued at US$ 15.43 billion in 2025. This could be a growth opportunity for companies such as Tetra Tech (NASDAQ:TTEK) and Veolia Environnement (EPA:VIE). Tetra Tech provides consulting, engineering, and technical services for the water sector while Paris-based Veolia Environment has been in the water business for over a century, designing and operating desalination plants for municipalities and industry around the world.

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