Meeting the rising demand for energy is a central prerequisite for economic growth and social development in most developing and emerging countries. But energy expansion often occurs at the expense of water security – this is particularly true in the case of coal, but can also be said of other energy carriers. What solutions are available and what are the first steps to bringing about change? These issues were the focus of an event titled “Making sound energy choices today to achieve water security tomorrow”, which was staged jointly at the World Water Week in Stockholm by international water network Global Water Partnership, think tank China Water Risk, and the IASS.
Even wind and solar power cause water pollution
Debra Tan from China Water Risk emphasized that all energy sources have negative impacts on water security. The mining of rare earths, which are used in the construction of wind and solar power technologies for example, results in environmental and water pollution. The extent of these impacts is often devastating in China and environmental protection measures must be implemented more thoroughly, said Tan. Despite this, China Water Risk favours a reduction in coal consumption and the strengthening of efforts to expand renewable energy generation beyond the scope currently foreseen by the Chinese government as it is the only way to reduce water usage and lower CO2 emissions.
Angela Klauschen from Global Water Partnership described the issues around the use of traditional biomass – in particular wood and charcoal – in sub-Saharan Africa. The smoke generated by the use of biomass for cooking is harmful to human health, and deforestation depletes supplies of ground and surface water. The use of traditional biomass will need to be reduced in order to safeguard water security, for example through the introduction of modern cook stoves.
Global water crisis exacerbated by coal
Harri Lammi from Greenpeace presented new analyses on the role of the coal industry in the global water crisis. He showed that even coal mining undertaken with the ‘cleanest’ technologies has a substantial impact on water security. No other source of energy requires so much water, Lammi explained: “The amount of water consumed by the coal industry is equivalent to the basic annual water needs of one billion people.” The location of many coal-fired power plants is also cause for concern: according to a study recently published by Greenpeace (The Great Water Grab: How the coal industry is deepening the global water crisis), 44 per cent of existing coal-fired power plants around the world are located in regions where water resources are already severely strained.
Merely appealing to the energy industry’s interests will not suffice to ensure that the necessary expansion of the global energy supply does not threaten water security, argues Sybille Röhrkasten from the IASS: “We need to raise public awareness of the energy sector’s impact on water security and build political pressure to facilitate a shift in policy.” Röhrkasten drew parallels to recent developments in international climate protection, where political pressure has been crucial in driving the introduction of measures to reduce emissions.
Researchers at the IASS have been studying the links between energy and water security intensively for several years now. Their efforts have focussed in particular on considering how wind and solar power could help to reduce the energy sector’s global water consumption.
- IASS research on the multiple benefits of renewable energy
- Web article covering the IASS event on the water-energy nexus for the 2015 World Water Week
- IASS Policy Brief: Secure and Sustainable Energy in a Water-Constrained World
- Blog post by Sybille Röhrkasten: The Water-Energy Nexus: Seeking Integrated Solutions