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Ameliorating the impact of India’s looming water risks: membrane technologies

Membrane companies in India are proliferating and have grown strongly in the last 4 years. The growth outlook for these companies is extremely positive as fresh water is expected to come under increasing scarcity. This demand for water will rise from domestic, de-salinisation, industry and irrigation requirements. While governments will work hard to secure domestic and irrigation requirements, industries will have to be individually responsible for meeting their water needs. 

In terms of water demand, the types of contaminants vary by local geographies and activities undertaken near local aquifers. Water transport infrastructure is inadequate and hence, there is always a need for point of consumption purification interventions.  

For drinking water, and in cases where industrial input water requires a high degree of purification, reverse osmosis as a ‘point of consumption’ water treatment dominates. These RO filters address the high levels and the wide variety of total dissolved impurities, but are expensive solutions. The main cost driver is the cost of its thin film composite reverse osmosis membrane. On contributing cost factor is that most membranes are imported into India with an import duty rate of 7.5%.

Point of Use Technologies

Optimal Scale

Example Impurities

Conventional filtration

3µ >

Dissolved solids


0.1µ - 3µ

Dissolved solids; large organic matter


40°A  - 0.1µ

Dissolved solids; large viruses and microbes


10°A -  70°A

Dissolved solids; components and micro-organisms

Reverse Osmosis

1°A - 10°A

Dissolved salts, components and micro-organisms

Exclusionary impact on individuals

Due to the high total dissolved solid levels and variety in impurities in India, the Indian water purifier household market is dominated by reverse osmosis (RO). The price differentials for ‘point of consumption’ water purification technologies have created a sanitation quality gap: the bottom of the income pyramid (largest share of the population) uses conventional filters while upper middle class households use RO filters. 

The entrenchment of RO-based household technologies and the persistence of the ‘sanitation gap’ is unlikely to change. The use of point of consumption technologies have also reduced any political impetus for the middle class to ensure municipal governments invest in ‘water quality for all’. 

Roughly 70% of the RO market is held by 10 companies, with Indian brands Eurkea Forbes and Kent as forerunners with a combined 50% market share in 2013. Growth in the RO market is evident with the emergence of large industry players like Tata Chemicals, LG, Panasonic and Unilever entering the RO water purifier market in the past 2-3 years. 

Increasing Importance of Water Recycling for Industry

For industrial water use, the cost of water extraction and pre-treatment (particularly, where purified water is a raw material in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, beverage, healthcare, and food processing) is increasing. 

At present, the cost of water varies peaks due to certain geographic hotspots of water quantity / quality stress, and where water-intensive industries have found it unavoidable to operate in a region of water stress due to other factors (e.g. climate, logistics). 

In future, the cost of input water is set to increase as industry reconciles growth & expansion plans with water risks in their supply chains. Many industries are currently mandated by law to purchase water recycling infrastructure but these are not being optimally utilised. However, the business case to operate water recycling and post-treatment facilities is set to increase as water risks manifest and cost of input water rises. 

In this context, the availability of affordable and effective membrane technologies will be a core enabler for cross-industry growth.  Typically, membrane technologies are being sold to original equipment manufacturers and waste water solution design & engineering firms. The likes of Uniflux, Permionics, Ion Exchange, Driplex are examples of players in the Indian market that have gained significant traction. Currently, Uniqflux manufactures membranes for original equipment manufacturers like Eureka Forbes, Unilever and Thermax.  Their largest client is the pharmaceutical industry which requires very high quality water. Uniqflux also produces machines using their membrane for industrial water treatment and has plans to develop a desalination plant in Chennai.  

Future Outlook

There is a growing need for India to develop and commercialise technology for water recycling, and develop center of excellence for membranes design and production. The production of membranes for water treatment  in India will cut dependency cost and foreign exchange cost for the entire industry, while also making RO affordable to low-income populations. 

An Indian pioneer, Uniqflux Membranes LLP, has established a thin film composite reverse osmosis membranes production plant in 2014 in Pune. The production plant will manufacture high-tech membranes for applications in households, medicine and industrial fields for water treatment. The company is licensing the technology from the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) that develops technologies for manufacturing of UF and RO membranes. Uniqfux membranes (machines) are half the price of the imported versions. Rahul Pathak, Managing Director of Uniqflux Membranes LLP, stated that since launching the RO membranes in the beginning of 2014, the company has seen 100% growth every month.

As fresh water demand intensifies, the use of membranes to recover water will become increasingly important. However, using membrane technology approach is just one ‘bottom of the hill fix’ to systemic water issues. While membrane technologies will enable India to somewhat decouple growth from dependence on water assets, a holistic water risk management approach requires a joint focus on building awareness; regulatory controls, and policies which support water conservation; water efficiency; water recharge and enable strict enforcement of eliminating key contaminants at points of source.


Uniqflux Membranes is a Parivaratan Awards nominee for 2014

Image Credits: Uniqflux, Steven Depolo

Author: Sustainability Outlook