"Water efficiency has never been an issue here"

Friday, November 4, 2011

One of the main issues societies face once they start to develop economically is an increase in water consumption, not only because of population growth, but also due to growing agricultural and industrial processes.

While Chile isn't currently facing severe water scarcity, the topic has become more of a concern for authorities recently, as the country is now dealing with its driest year in the last 160 years.

Recent efforts to crack down on illegal water usage and implement larger fines for infractions are just the latest example of steps the government is taking to improve water management. Another measure increasingly under discussion is the reuse of greywater for irrigation and industrial process.

More than water reuse, the real issue in Chile is using the country's water more efficiently, according to Alex Godoy, a researcher and professor at Andrés Bello university's sustainability research center.

BNamericas sat down with Godoy to discuss water efficiency, agricultural water use and the challenge of stimulating local development in desalination.

BNamericas: I wanted to begin with the topic of greywater and its use in Chile. How advanced is it at the moment?

Godoy: This is about more than just greywater. The issue is water efficiency, the efficient use of resources, and the capacity to reuse water without having to decrease the level of consumption.

Water used in the sink or the kitchen is different from water from the bathroom. It has different levels of organic material in it. This type of water can be separated and introduced back into the system with small and easy treatments.

This is not about technology; it's just an extra stage in the water treatment process. I want to make it clear because every time someone hears the word technology, they think they need to buy a machine.

This isn't reinventing the wheel, but the fact is that water efficiency has never been an issue here. And this is because water in Chile is cheap. But it will be an issue once water for industrial or domestic use becomes scarce and gets more expensive.

BNamericas: You mentioned that the issue is water efficiency. Is this a problem in Chile?

Godoy: We're not in a good position, because we don't think in terms of resource efficiency.

In more developed countries, project engineers start with the premise of being resource efficient. It's in the DNA of the project to think that way. In Chile it's the other way around - we think about the productive process first and then the externality.

When I talk to companies, I say: "Look, this is the way to do it, you can incorporate resource efficiency at an earlier stage." Their response is usually "What for? This will only push our expenses up, and it will scare investors." On the contrary! You have to convince investors that what you're doing is minimizing the risk of their investment.

BNamericas: And what's the situation in the rest of South America?

Godoy: The topic isn't even brought up for discussion, because the region doesn't have major problems for water access. There are countries and areas where water scarcity is more severe, for example the Chaco region in Paraguay and parts of Bolivia and Peru. But these countries are economically less developed than Chile, so the issue isn't fully incorporated.

BNamericas: What about water efficiency regulation?

Godoy: Regarding quality standards, Chile is at a good level - it even has some regulations on water quality and pollution that are as demanding as regulations in developed economies. The issue is something else, and I'll give you an example about air pollution.

In Chile, companies are always trying to be below the permitted level. So companies, and in particular those in charge of running a plant, emit low levels of pollution during most of the day, but at certain hours of the day, they have a spike in production [and therefore, an increase in pollution levels], but still remaining below the norm.

The same thing happens with effluent discharges: they're constant during the day, with spike events at certain times.

BNamericas: If the issue isn't regulations, who takes responsibility for making sure water is used efficiently?

Godoy: I believe it has to do with the behavior of the individual, the one that is running the plant.

Government and regulators don't have the capacity to oversee everything and to be everywhere, and a lot of the time what the regulator does is transfer that role to the companies for them to report if any particular event happens.

To achieve water efficiency, it's not enough to have an engineer studying the flow sheet of a process. We need to generate an entire organizational change from top to bottom.

The issue is minimizing risk, understanding that the environmental aspect of the productive process is now one of the main issues. If I don't pay attention to the issue, I put my business at risk; I put investors' money at risk. I believe this is an ethical issue, and we're lacking ethics.

BNamericas: What about water efficiency in agriculture - what level is Chile at?

Godoy: In northern Chile there are alternative water intakes, for example the use of mist collectors, or drip irrigation. These are techniques being used in countries like Israel and Egypt that have years of experience.

BNamericas: Is there a way to design policies that will stimulate irrigation water efficiency at a local level?

Godoy: In fact, that's the way it should be. Every region, every area should work in the design of its own water efficiency policies. This is something that the agricultural and livestock agency (SAG), together with the agriculture ministry, has been working on for some time, though I'm not sure if there are specific policies for every local area. The tendency of the government in Chile is to create national scale policies, given our centralized form of government.

The irrigation policies of every single region in the country should be treated individually, factoring in elements such as drought vulnerability and what each region produces economically.

BNamericas: What about transfer projects to areas with less water available?

Godoy: Watershed management? It's nonexistent. It has never been a priority, not in this government and not in the previous ones.

We've been fighting for it for the last 20 years, because there are river basins that are more impacted than others, as usage is different. We should have a watershed management program, as it is also very important in the energy field. But it has never been done.

BNamericas: Talking about desalination projects, what are your thoughts on the efforts to turn Chile's north, particularly Antofagasta in region II, into a regional hub for desalination?

Godoy: I think it's a good idea. Anything that can contribute to improving Chile's coastal areas is a good thing. We have 6,500km of coastline and economic development in coastal areas is very low.

My only critique to the desalination plants in Chile is that they follow a model from the past. That is, companies buy a plant abroad, install it and then run it. There's very little local development.

BNamericas: What alternative model would you propose?

Godoy: The model should be to transfer a core technology, but to develop it locally.

Under the old model, there's zero generation of development at a local level. Companies owning desalination plants don't even have their own R&D department that could contribute to, for example, the use of desalinated water for other economic processes. There's no vision for the future.

What I fear the most is that in future, we will become a country that, for mere economic reasons or just pure laziness, will be net buyers of technology, and because of that, see ourselves as a developed economy.

In the future we could be a rich country, because we're exporting commodities, but we're not going to generate anything ourselves. And my opinion is that we have the people, the capacity and the knowledge to generate technology at a local level.

About Alex Godoy

Alex Godoy is a biologist and has a PhD in engineering, chemical engineering and bioprocesses from Chile's Pontificia Universidad Católica.