The ICT industry’s vulnerability to water insecurity

Information and communications technology (ICT) hardware manufacturers are vulnerable to decreased availability of good quality water as the manufacturing process for computers and their components is water intensive. For example, an estimated 1,500 liters of water is required to manufacture a PC computer and monitor. Meanwhile, despite only 3 liters of water being required to make one computer chip millions are produced annually.

ICT hardware manufacturers can also exacerbate water insecurity for other users through point source and non-point source pollution. For instance, more than 700 chemicals are used to manufacture computers, half of which are toxic: the most common chemicals used are cadmium, copper, lead and mercury:

  • Cadmium is used in the manufacturing of rechargeable nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries. The long-term health effect of exposure to cadmium is kidney damage
  • Copper is used in the manufacturing of semiconductors, circuit boards and wiring due to it being highly conductive. The short-term health effect of copper exposure is gastrointestinal distress, while long-term exposure causes liver or kidney damage
  • Lead is often used as a solder on motherboards. The health effect of lead exposure varies with age, from delays in mental or physical development in infants and children to kidney problems in adults
  • Mercury is commonly used as a lighting device in flat screen displays. The health effect of mercury exposure is damage to the nervous, digestive and immune system.
The ICT industry vulnerable to water insecurity

The ICT industry vulnerable to water insecurity


Corporate water risks faced by ICT manufacturers

ICT hardware manufacturers face numerous risks in terms of water insecurity. The main risks are:

  • Financial risks – losses can occur due to disruptions to the production cycle as well as increased costs of treating poor quality water.
  • Litigation risks – consequences of lawsuits or other legal actions in relation to the company’s impacts on water quantity and quality.
  • Physical risks – include both current and predicted change in water quantity and quality that may impact the company’s direct operations, for instance lack of water supply can slow down or stop production.
  • Regulatory risks – are the impacts of current and/or anticipated water-related regulations on a specific company.
  • Reputational risks – are current or potential conflicts with the public over water issues that can damage the company’s brand image locally, nationally or internationally, or result in the loss of the company’s license to operate within a certain location.
  • Strategic risks – are failures to incorporate water availability data into strategic planning.
  • Technological risks – lack of adequate technology in ensuring the efficient use of water resources, which can hinder production during times of limited water supply.

Decreasing the ICT industry’s vulnerability to water insecurity

ICT hardware manufacturers can ensure overall water security and reduce their exposure to risks by implementing a 10-step water risk management approach:

  1. Measure current water use and waste discharges.
  2. Assess local water conditions and risks (economic, political, and social etc.).
  3. Consult stakeholders to prevent or reduce the risks of future water-related disputes.
  4. Engage the supply chain to assess their impacts on water security and potential for disruptions.
  5. Establish a water policy and set quantifiable goals and targets on water-use efficiency, conservation and minimizing water-related risks.
  6. Implement best-available technology for reducing water consumption and waste.
  7. Factor water scarcity and water-related risks into relevant business decisions.
  8. Measure and publicly report performance metrics on water use and impacts.
  9. Form strategic partnerships to address water-related problems on a regional scale.
  10. Develop and implement a written commitment to continuously improve the assessment and management of water-related risks and reduce the company’s water use.

The take-out

To reduce water insecurity for all users the ICT industry can implement a 10-step risk management framework.

*Robert C. Brears is the author of Urban Water Security (Wiley). Urban Water Security argues that, with climate change and rapid urbanization, cities need to transition from supply-side to demand-side management to achieve urban water security.

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Author: Robert C. Brears

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