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What we need to do to tackle the crisis of water depletion

Daily O
By Professor  

Recent projections indicate for global energy demand to grow by over a third by 2035, with China, India and the Middle Eastern nations championing 60 per cent of the bargain.

By that time, global electricity demand is to hike by 70 per cent, almost entirely in non-organisation for economic co-operation and development, with India and China accounting for over half the tally. Global freshwater demand is to rise by 85 per cent, largely to feed the energy sector.

Today, water and energy appear inextricably twined by issues of economic proliferation, poverty reduction, health care development, improved living standards and so on.

It takes into stride even issues of food security, gender inequality and child mortality, especially in the developing economies. Globally, about three billion people, making less than US $2.5/day, are linked by issues of water and energy.

Is this a big deal?

It is, in view of unprecedented freshwater depletion worldwide. Already, about 20 per cent of world’s largest aquifers (groundwater reservoirs) appear critically depleted. What’s more, climatic aberrations coupled with unregulated pumping, siltation, sewage disposal, industrial effluents, urban build-ups have begun affecting some of the world’s wealthiest river systems.

UN reports reveal that about 90 per cent of untreated sewage and 70 per cent of industrial waste, in the developing nations, is dumped in surface water, which lowers river discharge and thus chances of net freshwater availability.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), key facets of water depletion telling on the energy sector include: (a) vanishing water sources close to human settlements, leading to higher transportation costs and/or higher energy requirements to pump at greater depths; (b) more stringent standards for water treatment; and (c) shift from surface/flood waters to groundwater-based irrigation (typical of India) that is more energy-intensive (and expensive).

At its root, electricity fires up the pumps that abstract, transport, distribute and collect water. Water/wastewater treatment processes - desalinisation, detoxification, chlorination, recycling etc - need electricity and, often, heat (thermal energy).

Other energy inputs occur at the point of end-use, often in households, primarily for water heating, washing of clothes/utensils, running air cooler/conditioners, generators and several others. Globally, energy can account for about 60-80 per cent of water transportation/treatment costs and up to 14 per cent of water utility costs.

How does water play out in the energy sector?

Mostly as coolants (both industrial and domestic), as well as source of heat (thermal energy) with the former accounting for about five per cent of global water withdrawal. Industrial claims range between 5-10 per cent of global water demand. Other uses include mining and fuel production and, above all, hydropower generation.

Recently, global energy focus has been shifting towards renewable sources including hydropower and biofuels. This is a progressive stance, of course, keeping in view the adverse effects of fossil fuels on environment (GHGs/global warming). But both hydropower and biofuel production are highly water-intensive operations.

A litre of biofuel takes about 2500 litres of water on average. Plus, biofuel crop production frequently leads to severe water quality impairment (sediment and nutrient runoffs). And hydropower, though reckoned as a "clean" energy source, is no less demanding either, leading to drastic displacement of native population (forced migration, as in Indian northeastern states) and/or alteration of ambient river water quality.

So how to choose? Or should we choose? Water and/or energy are both indispensable to development. But now’s a time to see things clear and lay out some roadmaps.

What we need is explicit analysis of water consumption factors by energy sources and incorporate those in future energy projections to estimate demands by scenario in the key regions (such as drought-prone areas). This will help identifying in advance the pressure points in life cycles of energy production.

What we need are reasonable estimates of the synergies and trade-offs and have a grip on the uncertainties therein. What we need is for our authorities to make provisions for research in relevant areas (water-efficient power plants or energy-saving water-treatment facilities or drought-tolerant crops).

What we need are coherent and transparent institutional frameworks with active stakeholder participation in formulating relevant policies. What we need now are targeted legislations to regulate freshwater abstraction, and meter electricity consumption, especially the irrigation pumps.

It is of added significance for developing economies, especially the whole of southeast and south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, undergoing accelerated transformation and rapid economic growth, on top of a great deal of population still out of "safe" services (improved water-sanitation-health care).

But what we need the most now is probably for ourselves to grow consciousness against undesirable wastage of water and/or energy to help authorities do what they do best.