ROUNDTABLE | Ensuring Safe Drinking Water

Ensuring Safe Drinking Water

As stated in the SDGs, the world needs safe water. Although the Earth is a watery planet, most of it is seawater. Fresh water accounts only for 0.6%, coming from groundwater, rivers, and lakes. Due to rapid population growth, there is likely to be a 40% shortage of water resources by 2030.

A safe water supply and better sanitation are crucial for human health. Half a million people die every year from illnesses caused by unsanitary water and inadequate hand-washing. As of 2015, 840 million people lacked access to basic water services.

How can Yokogawa help address these issues? We interviewed four key people involved in water projects in Yokogawa.

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Differences in Perception of Water between Japan and Other Countries

― Dr. Matsui, the figures on the availability of freshwater look serious.


That’s right. Before looking closely at this global issue, you first need to understand that people’s views on water differ between Japan and other countries. For example, it often rains in Japan and there is abundant fresh water in local rivers and lakes. It may be muddy sometimes but the turbidity caused by clay soil is relatively easy to treat. Even if left untreated the turbidity will settle out soon. But the situation is different in other countries.

In my twenties, I visited many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to help secure safe water including digging wells. In one rural area in an African country, I developed a system that allows people to purify water by themselves. These projects taught me an important fact: water in many countries has two types of toxicity that need to be handled properly. One is acute toxicity, which causes various symptoms a few hours after drinking. The other is chronic toxicity, which means if you continue drinking it for a long time, the toxicity gradually affects your health. For example, fluorine can damage the joints and arsenic causes carcinomas. In many countries, people have no choice but to drink water containing such toxins.

There is another difference in perception. In Japan, people assume that safe water is absolutely safe and has zero risk. In many other countries, however, if 10,000 people drink the water for one year and no more than one case of disease related to the water occurs, the water is considered safe. Outside Japan, there is no concept of “absolute safety”; people are always aware of the risk of drinking water.

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Service Must Meet the Different Definitions of Safety around the World

― Dr. Matsui, I hear that you are dedicated to this issue.

That’s right. What kind of water do you consider safe? People in Japan say, “This water is really clear! It must be safe for drinking.” But from a global perspective, the word “safe” alone is not enough. What does the word mean? Why can you say it is safe? We should start from this point. I’ve been involved in water projects for nearly 20 years, working to provide services and technologies that meet the definition in each area.

We should try to improve public health, but at the same time, a private company needs to be run as a business. When working on water issues, we need to determine in which areas or domains Yokogawa can demonstrate its strengths.

― Dr. Matsui's research and project management for 20 years and more is in line with Yokogawa’s future direction. Ms. Kawata, what do you think about these global issues, particularly drinking water?

I am also very concerned about the global challenges just discussed. I am currently involved in a project to optimize sewage treatment processes in the United States. In Japan, people don’t think about treating sewage to produce drinking water, but in many countries, people are trying to do just that. This is a big difference we need to recognize.

Treating sewage requires a lot of energy. In Japan, sewage treatment tends to consume a huge amount of energy to comply with discharge standards, and so water companies focus on saving energy while keeping the quality of treated water within standards. In many other countries, in contrast, the goal is to turn sewage into drinking water, and so the primary requirement is to make water as safe as possible even if it takes a lot of energy. This difference seems very large, but actually both approaches are basically the same in terms of controlling water quality.

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How Yokogawa Is Tackling Global Water Issues

― Dr. Taguchi, how do you think we should tackle these challenges regarding water?

I have been developing sensing technology for those factors that are essential for sustaining human life, including water and food. In Japan, one major issue is food waste. We are targeting food and water to help enhance the sustainability of the world.

― Yokogawa has long been involved in the water treatment business but the main target was the Japanese market. The company was not very active overseas. Has anything changed, Mr. Komatsu?

In fact, Yokogawa has been involved in the water business in the Middle East and Asia, and has worked with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) on other overseas projects, but its share of Yokogawa’s business is small. However, water issues are becoming more serious globally, and I think Yokogawa should become more involved in solving these problems. Yokogawa has been actively conducting research and development for various businesses but we have to take novel, proactive approaches because new issues regarding food and water keep coming up.

― Yokogawa will continue to expand its water business globally.

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The First Major Target Is the U.S. Market

― How will your research help achieve the goal? Dr. Matsui, how about in your case?

I joined Yokogawa just one and a half years ago. I had worked at an engineering company, a consulting firm, and a university. If I were in academia, I would analyze this issue more theoretically. But I am working for a private company, so it is natural to try to solve the challenge with Yokogawa’s products and generate profit, and that makes the U.S. market a logical target.

First, we should avoid external risks. Like in Japan, a project is almost certain to go ahead when the budget is approved. In developing countries, however, things can fall apart at any time due to external factors such as elections and other political reasons, and we often have to start again from scratch. It is also often difficult to raise the funds you had expected. The U.S. market is safer than others.

In the U.S., people’s attitudes toward water are quite different between the West Coast and East Coast. In the Sunbelt, which stretches from California on the West Coast to Florida, many cities and communities are constantly threatened by water shortages and droughts. California is a large state and its population of 40 million is still growing. Meanwhile, the Colorado River, which is the major water source for the region, is gradually drying up, presumably due to global warming. This causes water stress, which means the inability to provide water for a growing population. Facing an imbalance between supply and demand and the increasing stress, the local authorities started to discuss reusing sewage.

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Visualizing the Purification of Water

Desalination is a popular solution to water shortages in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, but there is one big problem: it requires a lot of energy. Fresh water is produced by burning oil and other fossil fuels to heat seawater and then cool the vaporized water. The oil price in Saudi Arabia is one-tenth to one-twentieth of the international price. If you tried to do the same thing in the U.S., you would go bust. When you think about profitable water sources and supply methods, the reasonable conclusion is to reuse sewage. Yokogawa agrees with this approach.

Water is indispensable for the growth of both people and cities. Japanese municipalities apply a rate-of-return regulation to water charges, aiming to recover the total annual cost through sales. The result is that costs differ from region to region. The unit price can be as low as 2,000 yen in some cities and as high as 9,000 yen in others. Meanwhile, most municipalities in the U.S. consider that cities cannot grow without water and that the rate-of-return regulation does not contribute. So, many cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas do not have such a regulation and actively use public funds to maintain a balance between revenue and expense in the water business.

When I was involved in the water business in Japan, many people asked me about its profitability. That is a Japanese way of thinking. In the United States, water is a crucial infrastructure that supports cities. Without water, cities cannot grow and sustain themselves. Cash flow in the water business is far more lavish than in Japan, and there is also generous financial support. For these reasons, we decided to target the United States and focus on developing technology for reusing sewage, which is more feasible in terms of continuous operation than desalination.

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Reuse of Sewage Relieves Water Stress in Drought Areas

What’s more, Los Angeles, which is Yokogawa’s main target, is an area with a fairly high level of water stress. We have already discussed the technological challenges with a local water authority and concluded that it is necessary to visualize how water is being made drinkable through advanced water treatment technology. Visualization is a technological strength of Yokogawa. Considering these conditions, we called our research theme “reclaimed water in the U.S.” and focused our activities on it.

We also found that people are concerned about leaving the public health system to technologies like AI and the IoT. They worry about who will be responsible for the results. Public health is an ethical issue. People believe that human workers should be responsible for operations such as pressing switches and starting pumps. Accordingly, we are proceeding with the research and development under a consensus among the three parties: engineers including me, legal scholars, and the waterworks bureau, which represents the residents for public acceptance. In this project, we are trying to make user-oriented proposals.

I worked for a long time at a plant engineering company, and I am still designing systems at Yokogawa. But frankly speaking, there is no longer an absolute advantage for water authorities to leave plant engineering to Japanese companies. Systems and technologies are becoming increasingly commoditized, and thus anyone who has the basic skills can design systems. For Yokogawa to survive the competition, we must differentiate ourselves from competitors by visualizing information on how to ensure public health safety, and extracting, managing, and incorporating this information in operations.

― So the key is how YOKOGAWA will differentiate itself from other companies.

Hands-on Experience about Local Water Issues Stimulates the Passion for Research and Implementation

― A large project sponsored by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) started in 2019, and one of its core themes was water. Ms. Kawata’s and Dr. Taguchi’s research were demonstrated in the U.S. and the project has continued this year. Ms. Kawata, could you tell us more about that?

My research is on how to optimize sewage treatment processes. In 2019 we conducted a feasibility study as a first step using operational data obtained from a water authority, proposed ways to save energy, and gave a presentation on related technologies that Yokogawa can offer.

The goal of the project last year was to treat sewage up to the level of drinking water. So, we were trying to improve the quality of treated water as much as possible while reducing energy consumption. Slowly but steadily, we are making progress. By communicating closely with the water authority, I am learning a lot. This job is really rewarding.

I had imagined that Los Angeles is a urbanized region well-equipped with water infrastructure, but when I saw the city for the first time in 2019, I was shocked. It was really dry, rarely rained, and there were frequent wildfires. I hope that our technology can help hydrate this arid city.

Ultimately, I’d like to apply new technologies to more arid areas. Predicting what kind of operation will result in what kind of water quality, we are trying to deliver safe, stable technology suited to the local conditions.

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Making Full Use of Yokogawa’s World Leading Measurement Technology

― What made you join this project, Dr. Taguchi?

The original goal of my research is to measure microorganisms and I am trying to do this by measuring genes. Using this technology, I studied how to detect harmful microorganisms quickly.

There are several ways to measure microorganisms out there, but they usually take at least one week to get results, which can have serious consequences. For example, there was a news report that a Japanese company recalled 600,000 PET bottles of tea because of turbidity. A long testing time allows harmful microorganisms to colonize and cause such incidents. My research aims to detect them quickly to prevent them.

Almost all food contains genes, so I started conducting research on food. Dr. Matsui then asked me to join the water project.

Like food, water is indispensable for life. Since I am not an expert in the production of safe water, I leave that to Dr. Matsui. My role is different. If you were asked to drink a glass of water that had just been purified from sewage, would you do so? No matter how safe the water is, it is difficult not to hesitate. Ideally, the quality of the water should be assured in addition to safety. My research aims to provide people with convincing information about quality.

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― How does your research support this water project?

We brought a developed system to the United States and asked local people to try it. The performance satisfied them and so we remain involved in this project this year.

Yokogawa’s Priorities to Tackle Global Water Issues

― Dr. Matsui, Dr. Taguchi, and Ms. Kawata are focusing on the water reclamation project in the U.S. Mr. Komatsu, what is your view on the water business of the Yokogawa Group?

We should build the water business into one of the core businesses of the Group. As a first step, the Water Business CoE was set up as a groupwide activity, which I am leading under Mr. Ishii. Yokogawa has developed measurement technologies for genetic analysis and scientific instruments. With these core technologies, the Water Business CoE aims to strengthen Yokogawa’s Digital Transformation (DX) domain, differentiate it from competitors’ and create new water businesses in cooperation with sales and development departments.

We have established systems for water treatment and sewage plants in Japan. But we do not promote them as they are on a global scale but customize them to meet the circumstances and needs of target countries and regions. Different teams are working on water reclamation in the U.S., improving the efficiency of sewage treatment in China, and reducing water leakage in Southeast Asia.

In addition to existing businesses, we need to consider how to solve local problems to develop our business in each region. We are considering how to acquire technology and how to organize it internally.

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― Yokogawa’s water business has done well in Japan, but you’ve had problems expanding into the global market, haven’t you?

That’s right. We need more overseas staff who understand the water business. In the U.S., Yokogawa’s SEs and salespersons can handle any problems in petrochemical and other plants, but we don’t have enough staff who can immediately support local water facilities. We cannot quickly respond to customers’ requests such as setting up a local business, offering technology, and providing consultation. We need to hire enough staff.

― Yokogawa has become a global company, with 70% of its sales from outside Japan. We have focused on the oil and chemical industries but now we are going to expand into the water field.

Yes, that’s the mission of the Water Business CoE.

The Future of the Water Business Relies on Global Human Resources

Developing human resources is crucial to grow the business. In my twenties, it was training after training, and in my thirties, I broadened my knowledge about public health and water treatment engineering at a university to go further into the field.

Training and learning are not limited to water research but over the past year I felt there was a strong need to develop human resources who are well versed in the water business overseas and can incorporate what they have learned into their own research.

Fortunately, there is a network of cooperation in the field of water; several companies, universities, and individuals share my philosophy. I am planning to send young researchers from the Innovation Center, hoping they will come back with relevant knowledge and experience. We should train young people so that they can think globally and carry out their own research.

― I couldn’t agree more. Doing business globally is one thing and developing global human resources is another. There are high expectations for the Innovation Center to develop excellent human resources as Yokogawa becomes increasingly global.

Your research on ensuring safe drinking water will surely pave the way for Yokogawa and make a global contribution. We look forward to seeing great results. Thank you very much for your time today.

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