World must use renewables to avoid water and energy crisis - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 21 Mar 2014 08:00 GMT
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In this 2012 file photo Anjana Lama drinks water from a stone spout in Lalitpur, Nepal. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world’s growing appetite for water and energy will greatly stress the limited water resources in nearly all regions, and governments must turn to renewable energy to meet increasing demand for both and avoid a looming crisis, a report published on Friday said.

The world will need 55 percent more water and 70 percent more energy by 2050 to meet the demands of its growing population. Better cooperation between and planning by the two sectors is essential to avoid future shortages in water and energy supplies, according to the World Water Development Report (WWDR), published by the United Nations on the eve of World Water Day.

“The link between the two is very close and you cannot look at one without the other. We need to better understand the interlinkages between water and energy, we need to promote better governance to reduce dramatically the number of people without access to drinkable water, sanitation and energy”, Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water and Secretary-General of the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation), told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Tokyo.

Around the globe, 768 million people still do not have access to safe drinking water and 1.3 billion live without electricity, the majority of them in developing countries.

Water and energy are highly interdependent because water is required to produce almost all forms of energy and energy is needed for all stages of water collection and distribution, so decisions made in one domain have a  significant impact on the other.

“If we go about business as usual, we are really getting into trouble in places where you already have some water scarcity”, Richard Connor, WWDR lead author, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Paris.

The Middle East, India and China, which are predicted to account for 60 percent of the increase in energy demand in the next 20 years, will face the biggest challenges because of water scarcity in those regions.

Developing countries will struggle to meet the needs of rapidly growing populations, especially where water resources are scarce or water-related infrastructure is inadequate.

Thermal power plants (coal, natural gas, oil), which require large amounts of water for cooling and account for 80 percent of global energy generation, remain the main source of energy in developing countries looking for cheap ways to increase the supply of electricity to their citizens.

The initial investment required to build renewable energy plants, which are less water-intensive than others, can be high, but such plants have long-term benefits and policymakers in developing countries should look for ways to secure financing for renewable energy production, Connor said.

“Money is a limiting factor, but so is water”, he said. “If you’re not considering water your energy policy is not going to work.”

From a water perspective, power generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and wind is the most sustainable, but other power sources, such as hydropower or thermal power plants, are still needed to compensate for their intermittent supply, the report said.

Despite predicted growth and increasing financial support for wind and solar power generation, renewable energy resources account for less than 5 percent of global energy generation.

“The only way to achieve both water and energy security is to have a massive switch towards non water intensive forms of energy and electricity production. Greater support for the development of renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal energy are critical to this," Connor said. 

There are many opportunities for the development of water and energy infrastructure and technologies that can maximize benefits and reduce negative trade-offs.

Saudi Arabia, for example, uses solar power for the energy-intensive process of desalination to meet its increasing freshwater demand. Its goal is to use solar energy for all its seawater desalination by 2019.

In Japan, hydropower bridged the gap in electricity generation after the closure of numerous nuclear and thermal power plants following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“The water community needs to (speak) louder if we’re going to solve the coming global energy crisis, and the politicians that make the decisions about energy need to listen”, said Connor.

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