The Strategist

Water Issues in Asia : An Interview With Jean-Philippe Filhol, Veolia Water Technologies

05/22/2015 - 16:39

For decades, Asia has served as a factory for the rest of the world. However, the offshoring of production to that part of the world has resulted in the displacement of a number of environmental issues, starting with those caused by industrial scale production. In an interview, Jean-Philippe Filhol, Regional Director Asia Veolia Water Technologies for industrial markets, provides further insight on this topic.

Jean-Philippe Filhol is Regional Director Asia at Veolia Water Technologies
Jean-Philippe Filhol is Regional Director Asia at Veolia Water Technologies

Are environmental concerns echoed throughout Asian cultures? How are these issues apprehended locally?

The vast majority of Asian countries officially put environmental concerns at the top of their agendas, but locally, there are still many disparities between countries like China, where standards are often more strict than those in the United States or Europe, as well as some countries that do not truly consider the environmental issues.
For example, in 2008 the Philippines designed an environmental legislative framework, and yet it has still not been implemented. This lack of responsiveness impacts key industry players, such as Veolia Water Technology, which offers solutions that are adapted to the new versions of these laws. We thought about getting involved with the Philippines’ efforts to put their framework to action, but it’s been seven years and we still have not had the opportunity to implement our technologies.
This delay can be attributed to the probability produced by single farms, as well as corruption in that part of the world. 

We all have China in mind when it comes to this issue, but is there a widespread pollution problem in Asia? If so, what is the source of this pollution that comes to mind?

Industrial pollution is a problem all Asian countries face, including pollution from heavy industries, such as petroleum refining, the production of chemicals or electricity by coal plants. These industries are booming, particularly in India and China, to support the development of national infrastructure.
We must understand that in this region, pollution is often seen as a necessary evil to industrial development. The economic development of Asian countries rely on these industries, which happen to have a real economic impact. The definition of new environmental regulations represents a major challenge for the countries, as they have an impact on their competitiveness in the global market. China must find a way to comply with international standards, while maintaining the competitiveness of their local businesses.
China should also take into account the pollution caused by the manufacturing sector that involves many foreign companies. These businesses relocate to Asia because of its flexible legislation and savings benefits from the manufacturing process. Thus, the problem of pollution is closely linked to a low-cost manufacturing model, which could be jeopardized if countries were applying environmental standards comparable to those existing in so-called developed countries.

When it comes to water pollution issues, such as those from fluoride, ammonia or heavy metals, where is Asia in terms of issuing laws to protect against this? Are governments responsive and proactive to environmental issues?

Water pollution is a major issue in Asia, especially in industrial areas where many pollutants are produced. Treating waste, according to relevant standards, is a priority to preserve precious water resources. This is far from being the case everywhere. In Burma, for example, certain industries, not just local businesses, but the global players as well, discard their waste without treating it directly, consequently negatively impacting the quality of rivers and groundwater. These practices pose serious problems for the environment, as well as public health.
This has led some countries to respond to regulations, including Taiwan, where the largest companies in microelectronics that use many toxic products throughout the production chain are based. Taiwan has recently strengthened its legislation for the maximum amount of ammonia contained in the waste and discharged by industries. This will position Taiwan as a responsive and active country on environmental issues. The country must comply with international regulations and contribute to the development of its industry leaders.

How are these regulations accepted and implemented by the companies concerned?

Some companies are not always willing to push the acceptance of environmental standards because they fear it will impact their competitiveness. These businesses are reluctant to spend their money on adapting to such regulations, especially when their competitors are sometimes not subject to the same restrictions.
But times change, particularly with large Asian companies working with international players, whose regulatory requirements are strongly based around environmental issues.
Other companies truly play a leading role when it comes to these issues. TSMC, the largest semiconductor foundry in the world based in Taiwan, is known to integrate environmental issues into its production process. As part of the adoption of the new regulations on ammonia, we have worked to develop a solution that integrates these regulations. It's an exciting challenge because we have to be creative so that our technical solution minimizes production costs or provides a positive return on investment for the company. This basically creates new value expectation for the environment and industry.
If Asian industry leaders, such as TSMC, have the intelligence to adopt these innovative technologies, we can expect a ripple effect that will inevitably impact the environment and economy in a positive way.

Asia is the leader in consumer electronics goods production. How do regulators try to limit the ecological footprint of this industry?

In Taiwan and Singapore in particular, there is one industry that is focused on the recovery of waste from the production of electronic goods. There are also solutions to reuse the water in the manufacturing process itself, or parallel rings (irrigation, cleaning etc.). To be developed intelligently, these solutions require working far upstream to better understand their manufacturing processes, the quantities of water used and the degree of purity required at each stage.
This comprehensive approach has enabled us to integrate our own technology, AnitaMox, the processing chain of waste that contains ammonia, which we hope to offer our Taiwanese partners. The whole point of this technology is its low Veolia environmental footprint. It not only leads to a very low chemical consumption, but overall has extremely moderate operating costs, making it both an ecological and competitive solution.

Are we witnessing the emergence of a comprehensive approach to water treatment issues in Asia, or is it still siloed approaches imposed by forced legislation?

To be truly effective, this comprehensive approach needs to enter the manufacturing process of our industrial partners. This is a sensitive approach because companies operate in a very competitive environment and they worry that that another company can understand their strategic and confidential advantages in detail. Therefore this overall approach is necessary in order to propose sustainable solutions without threatening the competitiveness of our competitors.
In addition, regulations are advancing environmental issues in the industry, especially in the more traditional sectors, which sometimes struggle to reform and evolve new less-polluting practices. For instance, the industry producing palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia suffers from a poor public image for many reasons. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that involves a constructive dialogue with the organizations, setting the regulations to offer solutions that do not have additional costs, but rather turn into another source of income. We now know how to retrofit releases by creating energy with the generated biogas and produce electricity in a stable and controlled manner. To initiate a comprehensive approach, it is understood that regulations can also help to develop an entire economy.

As a French leader collaborating with Asian companies, how do you approach your relationships with Asian businesses from a cultural point of view?

Industrial activity in Asia is marked by strong competitiveness, prompting businesses to think through how to get the purchase price as low as possible. Unfortunately many industries still favor short-term solutions and adopt less expensive ones, but are more demanding in terms of operation and sometimes less effective in terms of pollution.
Thus, a large part of our mission is to demonstrate to policymakers the benefits in the long term and carefully consider all factors that will lead to a rational decision in favor of a comprehensive and lasting solution.
It is a long process, having to overcome skepticism, while needing to continue to move forward at a fast pace. This implies proposing innovative solutions, offering a real guarantee of results and engaging in operating contracts, in which we do not hesitate to ensure the competitiveness and performance of our solutions. This is proof of our commitment to our Asian partners, to be at their side in the long term, to support their growth and respect the environment.
By adopting an approach "lead by example," we work with leaders in highly competitive sectors. We start from the simple premise that if these major companies, adopt our solutions, this is proof alone of their power and effectiveness!
We are now reaping the benefits of more than a thirty-year commitment in Asia. Manufacturers are beginning to understand that the cheapest solutions are rarely the answer and they often come back to us with different projects to find more sustainable solutions. This is good news for both the environment and Veolia, whose mission is to "rejuvenate Asia and the World" in partnership with the leaders of our industrial markets.

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