“Nobody has enough of it”: How Canadian innovation and exporting will help tackle the global water crisis

“Nobody has enough of it”: How Canadian innovation and exporting will help tackle the global water crisis

Water is becoming increasingly scarce. The strain from a growing global population alongside the impact of climate change, which has caused more severe droughts around the world, has set off several alarm bells.

Demand for water is forecast to exceed supply by 40 per cent in 2030, under current trends, according to United Nations Environment Programme. The World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks 2015 report, says water crises are the greatest risk facing the planet today, including access to safe drinking water. The World Health Organization says about 1.8 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces, which can cause diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio, and lead to death.

There is also an economic implication: According to a report from UNESCO, three out of four of the jobs worldwide are water dependent. It says water shortages could limit global economic growth. It’s clear why the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include the long-term availability and sustainable management of water.

Asia’s water crisis

The threat of water shortages is particularly acute in the Asia-Pacific region, with a population of 4.4 billion, or about 60 per cent of the global population, generating about one-third of the world’s GDP. Rapid industrialization and urbanization are making high demands on supply, says Dr. Eva Busza, vice-president of research and programs at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF Canada), and former director of policy and strategic planning for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

She cites statistics from WaterAid, showing that 63 million people lack access to safe drinking water in China, and 76 million in India. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report forecasts one billion more people in Asia will become water-stressed by 2050.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that, in the absence of autonomous adaptation or societal response, a much larger portion of the region’s population will live in water-stressed regions in the near future,” the report notes.

This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Canada, Busza says, as the country seeks to strengthen its ties with the Asia-Pacific region and create more opportunities for exporters, including those offering innovative services and products that can help to improve health and the environment.

“As the centre of gravity is shifting to Asia, that’s where the growth opportunities are,” Busza says. “It’s important for Canada to be diversifying and finding new markets. We need to be building our relationships with Asia” to remain competitive in the global economy.

Busza says that includes innovators, such as scientists and engineers, who can also benefit from partnerships with Asia.

Canadian solutions: from B.C. to New Brunswick

Canada’s expertise in water management has been honed over many decades, including the pioneering of wastewater treatment technology by Dr. Andrew Benedek, who founded Zenon Environmental, which was sold to GE in 2006. Canada is also well known for building and executing massive hydroelectric projects. There has also been a lot of homegrown innovation in the aftermath of the Walkerton tragedy in May 2000, when seven people died and thousands became ill due when a dangerous strain of E. coli contaminated the small Ontario town’s water supply.

Busza says some Canadian water companies, including small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), are exporting their technologies to help address water contamination and scarcity issues across the Asia-Pacific.

An example is Singer Valve of Surrey, B.C., which designs and manufactures valves that control water pressure, reducing water leakage. The company exports its technologies to countries around the world. More than a third of its business is in Asia, says Singer Valve President Andrew Taylor.

Singer Valve does business in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea Vietnam and the Philippines. It also has a manufacturing facility in China and has recently entered the market in India.

One of its projects was adopted by Malang, Indonesia, which had problems with high leakage rates, daily pipe bursts and insufficient water levels caused by aging infrastructure. By installing Singer Valve units, the city was able to reduce overall water pressure, reduce leakage by 75 per cent, power consumption by 33 per cent and pipe breakage by 300 per cent. The city was also able to expand its water service to an additional 25,000 connections, which is the equivalent of about 125,000 people.

Singer Valve doesn’t just sell products either. Taylor says it often sends staff to countries in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere to train local engineers and operators on how to better manage and maintain their water management systems.

Asia is an important market for the company, and where Taylor believes Singer Valve’s technology can do a lot of good.

“There is a greater awareness of the scarcity of water, as well as issues and limitations of their water systems in Asia than in North America,” says Taylor.

The challenge, he says, is understanding the individual needs of each country or even municipality in the region, and providing the proper services to help manage their water supplies, while at the same time reducing costs.

“Our goal is to help them make that water go as far as possible and be conserved as much as possible,” Taylor says.

Another company helping to solve water issues in the Asia-Pacific is Fredericton-based ADI Group, a pioneer in wastewater treatment technologies. Its portfolio also includes other technologies such as waste-to-energy solutions, containment systems and composting operations.

ADI Systems, a part of ADI Group, specializes in the anaerobic digestion of wastewater and organic food waste, aerobic treatment, and resource recovery through biogas utilization and water reuse. It also has products to collect and store biogas, which reduces contamination and protects the environment through safe containment and minimized greenhouse gas emissions.

ADI started with potato processing plants in New Brunswick, for well-known potato producer McCain Foods, before going international with its various technologies, each customized to the client.

ADI Systems’ president Shannon Grant says their work ranges from systems for dairy customers in Australia, alcohol production in Thailand, the palm oil industry in Indonesia and petro chemical plants in places such as Malaysia and South Korea The company’s technology is also used to treat wastewater at several paper mills in China.

“A lot of those southeast Asia countries have high-strength wastewaters that lend themselves well to the technology we have,” Grant says.

“Southeast Asia is a good key market because that is where the growth is in terms of the economy, population and development,” Grant adds. “It’s key to exporting as a Canadian company, to focus on that market. For us, it’s a key way to grow our company.”

Opportunities for SMEs

While a number of Canadian water technology companies have been successful exporters, breaking into larger markets such as Asia can be extremely challenging for smaller players, says Lynn Côté, sector advisor on the Cleantech Team at Export Development Canada (EDC).

“It’s not a small company opportunity,” she adds, because many buyers are looking for large turnkey solutions, instead of smaller individual projects.

That’s why Côté encourages water technology SMEs to get in front of big engineering firms in Canada and even the U.S., and try to form partnerships into large export markets in China, India and Southeast Asia.

“Water is the most challenging resource,” Côté says. “Nobody has enough of it, a lot of it is contaminated. When you look at these countries in Asia, and the growth and size of these cities, there are lots of opportunities for big infrastructure projects.”

The key for SMEs, Côté says, is bidding on those projects with larger players with a better chance of landing the business, instead of trying to tackle it alone.

More collaboration needed

Another way smaller Canadian companies can better compete is to form a larger industry coalition that would more effectively promote the suite of water technologies for export, says APF Canada’s Busza. It’s why she’s now calling on Canadian players, including governments, to form a water consortium to help increase their overall global presence.

She points to the Water Technology Acceleration Project (WaterTAP), which was established in 2010 by the Ontario government to bring together stakeholders, including policymakers and entrepreneurs, to help commercialize the province’s water products and services. Busza is calling on the federal government to do much the same to help support a consortium of water companies across Canada.

This will not only help add scale to what is now a number of smaller SMEs in the water technology sector, but it will also reduce their risk when entering large, complicated and critical international markets across the Asia-Pacific.

Busza cautions that moving into Asian markets can be difficult, and smaller companies often don’t have the resources to gain market intelligence and build partnerships with governments and businesses.

“Canada can punch above its weight in terms of asserting its importance to Asia by addressing challenges that different Asian countries face,” says Busza.

“We can leverage the talent and skills we already have in Canada while fostering areas where Canada is innovating. It’s really a win-win.”

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