Asia holds promise of big profits for water industry
Global water businesses are looking to Asia, where fast-growing cities and water management problems hold the promise of big profits.
Vietnam, Australia and China are top picks for water companies like Black & Veatch, Siemens Water Technologies and Veolia Water Solutions & Techologies, industry executives said at the "International Water Week" trade show held in Singapore last week.
The draw in Australia is the country's resource boom. In China and Vietnam, it is the burgeoning cities.
"There is fantastic growth potential in Asia due to the many issues of water shortages, water scarcity, plus the fact that more and more people are living in bigger cities," said Jean-Michel Herrewyn, chief executive of Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies, a unit of Veolia Environment, the world's largest listed water supplier.
The global water market, including waste-water treatment, desalination plant construction and water recycling, is estimated to be worth around $316 billion, the investment bank Morgan Stanley estimates. The bank expects private investment to play an increasingly critical role in the next few decades.
Last week, Marmon Water, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway's Marmon Group, opened a plant in Singapore to produce water filters. The factory, which will create more than 100 jobs, underscores Asia's emerging growth in the water industry.
"It's growing around 8 percent annually, and that makes it one of the faster-growing water markets in the world," said Charles Gordon, head of Asian operations for Siemens Water Technologies.
The region's water market is worth an estimated $120 billion a year, with desalination and water treatment segments growing at 12 percent to 15 percent, said Kerry Murphy of GE Water & Process Technologies, a unit of General Electric. Murphy said his company planned a presence in "nearly all countries in Asia" over the next three to five years through acquisitions and a direct sales model.
Len Rodman, chief executive of the U.S. water company Black & Veatch, announced at the show that his company had won $34 million in water projects in Asia. It tripled its revenues from the region to $170 million last year.
AmInvestment Bank of Malaysia and Konzen, a Singapore water company, also launched a water fund at "Water Week" in a bid to raise $320 million to invest in water assets in China and Southeast Asia.
Some of the main drivers of Asia's growing water business are population growth, urbanization and industrialization.
China, which saw double-digit growth over the past few years, has fast-growing cities and a growing number of industrial hubs, increasing its need for more and better water management.
Hyflux, a Singapore water firm, is a big player in China's water industry, with a portfolio of 44 Chinese water assets worth 600 million Singapore dollars, or $441 million.
Sam Ong, the company's deputy chief executive, said that he expected annual growth in China of 20 percent to 40 percent and that Hyflux was looking to fund new plants.
"We are in a sweet spot right now targeting second-tier cities in China; the global guys aren't in this market, and the local players don't have the technological know-how," Ong said, referring to cities like Chengdu, Hefei, Xi'an and Xiamen.
Vietnam also faces high growth and expanding cities. Veolia Water would open its first office in the country within a few weeks, Herrewyn said.
The Vietnamese media also reported Friday that GE Infrastructure had been talking with Vietnamese companies about setting up a water filtering technology plant, citing the company's chief executive, John Rice.
Water firms are also focusing on Australia, where the combination of the worst drought in 100 years and a booming mining industry is pushing the country to invest heavily in water. Mining is a water-intensive industry because of the need to purify ore.
"Another growth area for us is Australia, as long as water resources are strained by everyone wanting to go into the mining and natural resource business," Rodman said.
But some executives cautioned that the bullish outlook in Asia could change quickly if economic growth stalls.
Another obstacle, Murphy said, is finding skilled laborers, including engineers, in a region where competition for such talent is very tight. "The fundamental challenge is people," Murphy said.