Notwithstanding the tremendous potential to expand revenues, general lack of awareness about the benefits of using geosynthetics might delay projections set by firms in the sector. However, despite challenges, growth is eventually inevitable.
Roads, railroads, airports, shorelines, embankments, canals, reservoirs, dams, landfills, agriculture, aquaculture...
Name any industrial activity today and you have a geosynthetic product servicing it. But what are geosynthetics? Geosynthetics are industrial textiles made essentially from a variety of polymers to provide sturdy and cost-effective engineering in construction projects. They are used in tasks such as separation, reinforcement, filtration, drainage and creation of liquid barriers.
Geosynthetics are broadly categorised under eight main product categories: geotextiles, geogrids, geonets, geomembranes, pre-fabricated vertical drains (PVD), geosynthetic clay liners (GCL), geocells, and geocomposites. The polymeric nature of the products makes them appropriate for use on surfaces requiring high levels of durability. Geosynthetics can also be used in exposed applications.
Among geosynthetic products, the biggest share comprises geotextiles (80 per cent), reinforcement products (10 per cent) and composite products (10 per cent).
If you have ever travelled on the Konkan Railway, you cannot miss the boulder nets laid on hill surfaces along the railroad to prevent loose boulders from falling off and disrupting smooth movement of traffic on this critical coastal line. Similarly, large patches of hillsides along the famous Mumbai-Pune Expressway are also covered with boulder nets to both prevent landslides and provide support to vegetation to grow back. In the eastern state of Odisha, which has been ravaged by four major cyclones in the last 50 years, geosynthetic materials have proven to be effective in providing stability at select beaches. Further up, in India´s North East, geosynthetic materials have been used in rehabilitating roads, especially in the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, as the topsoil is very loose in the region.
In an interesting analogy, Dr K Rajagopal, Professor, Civil Engineering Department, IIT Chennai, compares geosynthetics to antibiotics. He says, ´Like the broad spectrum of antibiotics available today, we also have a broad spectrum of geosynthetics. A geosynthetic as an antibiotic is prevention. But it can also be the cure. Therefore, if you don´t want a problem to arise, the best option is to use geosynthetics right in the very beginning.´
Potential for Growth
So what is the growth potential for geosynthetics in India?
The Transparency Market Research´s (TMT) December 2015 report, Geosynthetics Market: Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast, 2023, valuing the global geosynthetics market at $9.57 billion in 2014, forecasts it to reach $20.80 billion by 2023, expanding at a CAGR of 9.1 per cent between 2015 and 2023. In terms of volume, Asia-Pacific accounted for more than 30 per cent share of the global geosynthetics market in 2014. Increase in construction projects and mining activity is expected to drive the global geosynthetics market during the forecast period. Volatility in raw material prices and availability of inexpensive alternatives are projected to act as a challenge for the geosynthetics market until 2023. Factors such as increased usage of geosynthetics in green roof and green wall, coupled with government initiatives to promote usage of natural geosynthetics, are likely to provide the market with an opportunity.
The report goes on to forecast Middle East and Africa as the fastest-growing markets for geosynthetics, owing to increasing demand from the construction industry. Asia-Pacific constituted the largest share of the geosynthetics market in 2014. Demand for geosynthetics in the region is estimated to be largely driven by India, China, and South East Asia. Growth in the mining sector and uptick in infrastructure development are projected to drive demand for geosynthetics in the Asia-Pacific region over the next few years.
The geosynthetics market in North America is projected to witness decent growth after the steady recovery from the economic slowdown. This trend is likely to continue up to 2023. The European market is likely to display moderate growth due to continuing slowdown in economic activity. Latin America is estimated to witness sluggish growth over the next eight years primarily due to moderate demand from end-user industries.
According to another report released by the San Francisco-based Grand View Research, Geosynthetics Market Analysis, the global geosynthetics market is expected to reach $27.08 billion by 2022. Construction industry growth in India, China and the Middle East, on account of rising expenditure on infrastructure development, is expected to be a crucial driving factor behind this development.
Increasing application of geotechnical products for controlling seepage problems in building and irrigation projects is expected to have a favourable impact. Growing shale gas production in the US and Canada on account of increasing expenditure on hydraulic fracturing at domestic level may drive industry growth in the near term. The geotextiles market was the largest product segment with demand estimated at over 4,300 million square metres in 2014. They are favoured in erosion control and soil reinforcement on account of properties such as flexibility, permeability and enhanced thickness.
The report further suggests that the global geosynthetic market size was 6,124.0 million square metres in 2014 and is expected to cross 9,000 million square metres by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 5.1 per cent from 2015 to 2022.
Roads and pavements accounted for over 30 per cent of global volume in 2014. Geogrids and geotextiles are used in reinforcing soil and facilitating filtration during road construction. Containment and waste water application is expected to witness the fastest growth in terms of volume, at a CAGR of 5.7 per cent from 2015 to 2022. Rising importance of waste water treatment in mining and upstream oil & gas sectors is expected to increase geotechnical product use in the near term. The Asia-Pacific geosynthetic market was valued at over $6,100 million in 2014. The ´Make in India´ campaign launched by the government in September 2015 in a bid to increase manufacturing output through foreign direct investment, is expected to increase expenditure in the construction industry and, therefore, likely to have a positive impact on the sector.
Such projections lead players such as Brian Schou Nielsen, Director, Fibertex Nonwovens, to declare, ´In a few years´ time when we have developed the market here, we will open a plant for production of geosynthetics in India.´
Industry experts told INFRASTRUCTURE TODAY that roads, railways, hydroelectric projects and environment management will be the main drivers of growth for geosynthetic products in India. Defence is cited as another important growth area. As the country asserts itself as a regional superpower, geosynthetics are likely to be extensively employed in rugged terrains such as in the North East where the Indian armed forces had minimal presence earlier.
According to an estimate by the Centre, the country needs Rs 31 trillion ($454.83 billion) to be spent on infrastructure development over the next five years, with 70 per cent of funds alone required for the power, roads and urban infrastructure segments. In such a scenario, the market potential for growth of the geosynthetics segment might be perceived as humungous at the first glance. However, there are several challenges along the way before geosynthetic products start getting assimilated into design brief reports (DBR) of engineering projects.
In India, lack of awareness and getting the end-users to appreciate what technology can deliver to them continues to pose a challenge before geosynthetic firms. Shahrokh Bagli, Chief Technical Officer, Strata Geosystems India, says, ´People are still not aware of the benefits of using geosynthetics.öTalking from his personal experience, IIT´s Dr Rajagopal opines,´Even as the private sector is ready for geosynthetics, the government sector continues to remain conservative.´ He adds that while the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is at least open to the idea, the Indian Railways is not.
The Indian Railways´ Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) has still not finalised the specifications for the use of geosynthetic materials on railway tracks though they are globally proven to reduce track degradation. And this, despite the present railway administration having committed itself to not only increasing speed of existing trains, but also embarking on high-speed railway projects on certain specified routes.
Experts point out that even in the roads sector, use of geosynthetic materials is currently negligible.
Growth of geosynthetic products in India is also hampered by a lack of well-laid out standards for products that are best suited to local weather and soil conditions. According to some industry insiders, India today finds itself positioned in geosynthetics where developed Western economies were a quarter of a century ago. However, as sector experts point out, lack of established conventions or guidelines should not be allowed to come in the way of growth of the sector.
Pietro Rimoldi, Geosynthetics Sector Specialist, Maccaferri, opines, ´When an Indian specification is missing, look at the international practice. Soil is soil, whether in India, Europe or the US. Loads are loads, whether in India, Europe or the US. Once you have properly designed a project as per the international practice, then you can also use the same practice for setting the specification for each product.´
Another challenge is finding trained geosynthetic experts as enough number of them are not available presently. This shortage is something that needs to be surmounted quickly. Says Dr Rajagopal, ´It is a kind of Catch 22 situation. We´re urging people to use the technology, but people are not ready to use it. The moment you demand it, people will train and come. At the moment there is a shortage of trained experts.´ He himself puts the total number of geosynthetic experts in the country at not more than 100.
There is also a need for certified contractors. In the West, only such qualified personnel are given the task of project execution.
Just like geosynthetic products, their testing too is a highly specialised activity. Presently, there is also a dearth of adequate number of testing houses.
Proactively Finding Solutions
The potential for geosynthetics in India is huge as the country will build lot of infrastructure in the near future to support its economic growth. On the other hand, there is the problem of approach. Rimoldi feels it is quite common in India to seek the Indian experience or Indian case history before embarking on a project.
He says, ´This often leads to a delay in accepting the international practices. It would be positive if the Indian engineering community used more of international practice without waiting for the Indian practice to be developed.´
Rimoldi also rues the absence of active Indian participation in international bodies pertaining to the sector. He points out, ´India is either absent or hardly represented in ISO meetings for geosynthetics. You are thus missing out on a possibility to attain the international experience by not participating in international groupings.´ He therefore feels that the country needs to actively increase participation in international forums on geosynthetics in order to keep abreast with the latest developments.
Since 2007, China has been building the fastest train network. This also makes it one of the largest users of geosynthetics in the world, because most of these 16,000 kilometres of high-speed line is on unstable soil. Therefore, China Railway has extensively used geosynthetic products such as geogrids to achieve stabilisation of the railway track. In the process, it has made extensive use of best practices from the UK, US, Italy and Germany at the design stage.
Similarly, in the Middle East - particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE - engineers identify the international standard most suitable to their conditions and then go about implementing it without any further ado. This helps them to save several years.
Therefore, it is ultimately about expanding awareness on the utility of geosynthetic materials - not only among end-users within the industry, but also the general public. An industry insider recounted a colourful story to IT.
During the field trials of a product to prevent shoreline erosion on a prominent beach in south India, people living in the fishing settlement nearby carted away bit and pieces of the material believing it to be scrap. Consequently, the trial had to be abandoned half way! This situation could have easily been prevented if only those people had been apprised of the same beforehand. Among other things, this would not only have been a confidence-building exercise, but also indirectly made those people custodians of the product.