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Revealing the difference in every drop

Why the same amount of water can have various impacts on the environment


At least 2.7 billion people live in river basins
that experience severe water shortage during
at least one month of the year (WWF 2012)

Japan is blessed with abundant water resources compared to the rest of the world, with twice the rainfall of the global average and some 14,000 Class A rivers alone. Water is so taken for granted as part of our climate that the expression “use like water” in Japanese means to use something as if it will never run out. It’s hard to imagine for someone living in Japan, but it is estimated that more than 600 million people on the planet lack access to safe water, while some 2.7 billion people have insufficient water for at least one month out of the year.

Water is a resource that cycles on a global scale, but that doesn’t mean that water flows the same way everywhere on earth. Different countries and regions have vastly different water conditions. In arid zones, for example, there is very little rainfall, and the only source of water is from supplies that were trapped underground several million years ago. Known as fossil water, this water is cut off from the current water cycle and has no mechanism for being recharged. Fossil water, like fossil fuels, will simply disappear once we have exhausted the supply.

The scarcity level of fossil water is completely different from the scarcity level of the perpetually cycling water that we use every day. We therefore say that there is a “difference in every drop.” Depending on what kind of water it is and where it comes from, using the same amount of it can have a vastly different environmental impact.

The water footprint: A measure of the potential environmental impacts related to water use

IOS 14046

Water footprint doesn’t measure the amount of
water you use, but the potential environmental
impacts related to water.(ISO 2014)

When and where you collect the water is important too. Is it the dry season or the wet season? Are you in the desert or a tropical rainforest? Is it fossil water or river water? Are there upstream conservation activities being carried out? All of these factors give rise to differences in every drop. As a company, our sustainability depends on Using water with lower environmental impacts or taking steps to reduce environmental burden can improve corporate sustainability. In this regard, it is critical to assess the environmental impacts of water use.
Are you familiar with the term “water footprint”? The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defined this term in its 2014 international standard as a yardstick for identifying the environmental impact of water use in the manufacture of products and provision of services. Basically, it is an objective indicator that assesses the amount of water used from the time resources are collected through the manufacturing, utilization, transport, and disposal stage and what the environmental cost of that water usage is.
The important thing to remember is that the water footprint doesn’t mean the amount of water used, but the potential impact of water use on the environment.

Both production plants and farms use water

When Suntory makes beer at one of its breweries, for example, water is used not only to create the beverage, but also in the cleaning, sterilizing, and chilling process—meaning that each large bottle requires between three and four liters of water. If we also add in the amount of water needed to produce ingredients like hops and barley, the total increases nearly a hundred times to 200 liters per bottle. This is extremely critical information, but it still only tells us about the amount of water used—a number that is not going to change much whether we manufacture the beer in a desert or in a water-rich region. In order to measure our water footprint according to the definition by the ISO, we have to take different water scarcity levels at different places and sources into account. We can then assess environmental impact. That said, the international standard doesn’t define a specific assessment method for these factors, despite the fact that they stipulate the evaluation framework itself.

use water

Developing a new method for measuring environmental impact by considering water availability

Computer simulation was required to calculate water cycles in the world’s different regions and assess the scarcity of water in certain collection zones and the environmental impact.

I thought we needed a new method for determining the kind of water circulating around the world, where it’s circulating, and in what amounts, and then using that information to quantify the different scarcity levels in each place—thereby evaluating corporate water use. What we came up with was the “water unavailability factor,” an indicator that was developed through a joint research project involving The University of Tokyo and others. This indicator divides the earth’s land area into about 67,000 parcels, and then incorporates water cycle results for each section, taking climate conditions and cultivated crops into account during the calculations. The system therefore objectively assesses the environmental impact of water use by reflecting the level of water scarcity in each region. Government agencies, companies, and other organizations have been using this method since the results were published in 2014.
This is currently the only method that allows us to calculate the impact of water usage in a way that reflects all these factors—time, place, water source, and whether there are conservation activities in place. They are also an effective way to assess the results of our water resource conservation activities, and in time, we hope to utilize them in our water sustainability practices for the entire Suntory Group as well.

Ensuring sustainability throughout company operations

“We want to contribute to corporatesustainability by assessing environmental impact from a comprehensive perspective.”

It has been said that if we humans continue to use our global resources to the point of excess, we may need two earths’ worth of resources by the year 2030. To avoid this situation, we need to figure out a comprehensive way to ease our burden on the environment and improve the sustainability of our practices.
Making fresh water from seawater, for example, is technologically possible, but requires energy. Eliminating water shortages may reduce the environmental impact of water usage, but we can’t simply pump endless amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in order to do it. We have to look at the big picture.
The indicators we’ve developed provide no more than a single perspective on the impact water usage has on the environment. There are many other perspectives that we have to consider as well—among them environmental costs like the global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity stemming from worsening water quality, overall social sustainability when it comes to poverty or education, or the effects on economic development. A single product requires the use of raw materials produced in multiple locations, so we need a broad perspective and vast knowledge in order to figure out which environmental impacts are most important in which locations and what our priorities should be in terms of improving sustainability. To answer the question of what the company can do as a whole to roll out sustainable business practices is extremely complex, and there is no one correct answer. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. What we do may be just a tiny part of the big picture, but evaluating the impact of water usage provides important clues as to the most appropriate way to address the situation. Our research is absolutely essential when it comes to achieving water sustainability.

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* The department name, title, and photo are as of the time of the production (interview).

* The department name, title, and photo are as of the time of the production (interview).