A technical advisor on the development of the Clean and Conserve water education program that Ecolab and the Project WET Foundation have recently launched, Dr. Raj Rajan is Ecolab’s RD&E Vice President and Global Sustainability Technical Leader. With 30 years of experience in water cycle management and environmental process engineering for the paper, petroleum, chemical, utility, food, beverage, transportation, and energetics industries and the travel and tourism sector, Dr. Rajan in his current role helps drive top-line growth for Ecolab and its customers by embedding sustainability thought leadership into the innovation process, environmental metrics in internal operations and sector-level standardization of sustainability metrics. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Varanasi, Dr. Rajan received his Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Massachusetts and is a licensed and registered professional engineer in the Michigan and Ohio.
Project WET asked Dr. Rajan to share some thoughts on water, hygiene and sustainability with the Project WET audience as part of a new “Ask the Scientist” series.
Project WET Foundation: One of the major focus areas of the Clean and Conserve program is hygiene education for young people. If you were talking to a classroom full of 10-year-olds, what would you want them to know about water from a hygiene perspective?
Dr. Raj Rajan: You cannot practice hygiene without clean water, without some form of energy (to move the water around or to heat it) and often without some help from chemistry (like soap). And hygiene is not just personal (like washing your hands whenever needed), it is about all surfaces around us that we touch, it is about the foods we eat and the fluids we drink. We all need to be alert, be conscious of our surroundings and be safe.
Project WET Foundation: Professionally and/or personally, what are the biggest water challenges that you deal with?
Dr. Raj Rajan: Professionally, the biggest challenge I see is that the “context” is often missing when accounting for water-related risks. Having lived through the greenhouse gas mitigation challenge (with little progress over decades) environmentalists and corporate sustainability practitioners are under a lot of pressure to simplify the risk message and the related numbers—hence the peanut-butter spread ‘inventory’ approach to water footprints that has little to do with ‘impacts’. The context is local supply-demand imbalance, seasonality, varying rates of replenishment for surface and groundwater, geographical variance in climate change impacts on precipitation—all local challenges that have not been relevant to measuring and reporting on metric tons of CO2 equivalents. The water risk message is thus more complicated by nature, making it harder to communicate.
Another professional challenge is the very understandable disconnect between availability, competing needs and cost of water. Water is both a basic human necessity inside the home and the critical bottleneck in two other basic human needs—food production and electricity generation—so it is not surprising that water, when available, is often subsidized. This poses a challenge to making a business case for water conservation in commercial and industrial operations in many markets.
On a personal level, after relocating to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, my family is going through the shock of using potable water in sprinkler systems. While we avoid it and end up with a tan lawn for a few weeks a year, it is hard to convince our friends and neighbors that pulling water out of the ground to maintain green lawns is not sustainable or responsible, when water tables are dropping.
Project WET Foundation: How does what you do at Ecolab address some of those challenges?
Dr. Raj Rajan: Ecolab’s offerings that prevent water pollution and reduce water use in industrial and commercial operations will address the projected disconnects between supply and demand in many geographies. Ecolab’s release of the Water Risk Monetizer in the public domain will help quantify and place a monetary value on the “context” for water risks for businesses. Ecolab’s funding of Project WET’s efforts will highlight the critical need for water for sanitation, infection prevention and public health worldwide. Ecolab’s funding of The Nature Conservancy’s source-water protection program in Minnesota and elsewhere will influence a gradual transition to more sustainable and rapidly replenished sources of water in urban areas by improving the quality of surface water in the regional rivers.
Project WET Foundation: What role can water education play in addressing water challenges?
Dr. Raj Rajan: Water is often taken for granted, whether it is available or not in the quantities and the qualities that are needed for all human activity. The fact that we put water to work to protect our wellbeing and quality of life, beyond drinking it—using it to cook our food or take a shower, for example—is worth highlighting from a young age. This will increase the value we place on water and will translate to responsible use as adults, whether we use water to heat or cool things, generate electricity, produce oil and gas or make paper and textiles. Comprehensive water education will broadly result in an inherent desire not only to conserve the quantity of water used but also to protect and preserve water quality.