Greg Thurman can solve two of China’s most pressing problems with one piece of equipment. Rather than dumping industrial wastewater into local rivers – already environmental hazards in their own right – the Valmont China executive suggests China use it to irrigate farmland.
US-based Valmont has a system for clearing water of enough waste to nourish farm soil without harming groundwater supplies. The Valmont system sees the water pumped out to fields and applied to soil through long-armed "pivot" irrigation systems which move slowly along the field.
Many Chinese factories don’t bother with the expense of water treatment plants, finding it easier and less expensive to discharge their wastewater into local rivers. Recently, however, more vigorous enforcement of environmental policies has created opportunities for Valmont.
The firm originally went to talk with Ministry of Environmental Protection officials in northern China when a retired civil servant pointed out pressure to clean up local water supplies was coming from Russia.
"Everyone we’ve called says they have wastewater problems," says Thurman, head of Valmont’s irrigation division in China, who has recently inked a contract to install the system in a tomato paste factory in Heilongjiang. Farmers whose crops supply the factory were happy to get the water – and to for the savings on fertiliser costs.
The tomato paste processor’s waste-water is high in nutrients that nourish the soil. Water-intensive food processors are ideal clients, says Thurman. However, their waste-to-water approach won’t work for municipal wastewater because of pathogens: the risk of diseases spreading by applying human wastewater to cropland.
"You definitely couldn’t apply such wastewater to crops ready for market," notes Thurman.
Industrial clients are attracted by cost savings: Rather than the US$12-14 million it costs to install a turnkey system to treat water before discharge to the river, Valmont’s system costs less than US$3 million. Some factories opt to pay more to install a clarifier which can clear solids from the water before it’s pumped to a storage pond next to the factory.
Thurman’s sales push has focused on the big tracts of land in northern and western China since such wide-open spaces suit the operation of the pivot irrigation system. It’s not hard to target clients since the Ministry of Agriculture runs most of the big farms in the region. "It’s harder in populous east-coast cities like Shanghai because you’d need to pump it 50 kilometres out of the city to get farmland big enough to take the irrigation system," he says.
Valmont is better known in China for making steel telegraph poles; it only brought its wastewater management segment here in 2008. But Thurman expects his department to report annual growth of 40% in the medium term.
It’s a fair bet, given that officials and farm managers are always looking for more efficient irrigation of China’s cropland, which currently guzzles over half of China’s water. Valmont is picking up plenty of orders for its standard irrigation systems, even without the wastewater treatment add-on. The firm sold 400 pivot irrigation units to the Erdos region in Inner Mongolia, which wants better corn and silage yields on large farms.
Water-pinched regions around the world have proven that similar technology works. For example, the Spanish city of Zaragoza reduced its per capita water use to a third of the national average by deploying wastewater irrigation systems. China can certainly use whatever help it can get to solve its water problems.