Water, energy and food: the essential triumvirate driven by water. But where does the water come from?

After the Supreme Court in Karnataka, India, ordered 15,000 cusecs of water to be released to the neighbouring Tamil Nadu in September 2016, civil unrest rose as the state of Karnataka itself faced water shortages. Photo credit: Majunath Kiran

Electricity production from oil, gas, and coal is a remarkably thirsty industry. The United States (U.S.) alone required around 161 million gallons (731,920 litres) of water per day just to produce and fire up the coal – 900 million tonnes of it, annually – to generate a scant third of the total electricity the county needs.

And plans to generate 500 gigawatts of electricity by 2040 from burning coal in India will need, at the very least, 58 billion m³ of water per year. And an estimated 15 per cent of water drawn annually in China goes into coal mining, processing, control of the resultant ash, and to cool the coal-driven power plants.

Global energy consumption is projected to increase by around 50 per cent by 2040, propelled by emerging economies like India and China. Energy based on fossil fuels will need more water to be distributed among the new power plants. This water, however, can only come from two sources: water from others who are already utilising it, or water from the original source – a difficult option as many water basins and aquifers are already over-exploited.

This water-energy quandary is a prime example of the complex challenges and environmental structures policymakers are confronted with when planning or proposing strategies for national economic growth.

For instance, an agricultural-dominated economy is more likely to be poorer per capita compared to an urbanised and industrialised one. While many nations have always historically set aside more water for agriculture – the global average hovers around 70 per cent – industrialisation is mostly driven by fossil fuels.  Chile and a few other nations are the exceptions rather than the rule, planning their national energy security around renewable energy.

The political challenge is that compromises must be made so that water basins are not strained any more than they already are, in danger of drying up, and leaving populations worse off than they already are.

Someone, somewhere – usually farmers – will have to utilise less water to allow the resource to be put in use in an energy strategy focused on the urbanised areas. Unfortunately, social anxiety – which everyone usually tries to avoid – may ignite as a consequence, like the recent riots Karnataka in India witnessed.

The upshot of all this is that the easiest – but least optimal route – is followed: Water continues to be overused, farmers continue to irrigate and cultivate so that industrialisation can advance on the backs of fossil fuels, and it all converges at hydrological unsustainability, and in some dramatic cases, the collapse of the entire water system.

It has happened before in the last hundred years in some drier regions of the U.S., Russia, and many countries in the southern part of the Mediterranean – Rome is in the middle of a drought. But perhaps the most well-known of all is the case of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Decades of inefficient use of water in industry, farming and urbanised areas have led to water scarcity in these areas. The emerging economies of Asia and Africa aren’t that far behind, with China being one of the worst water-starved countries, where the lack of water putting the food and economic security at risk unless major policy overhauls are enacted. The uncertain weather patterns, brought about by climate change, along with historic water overuse levels are multiplying the risk and turning the already-bad situation into a worse one.

Unless we confront and attempt to resolve these complicated, interconnected issues together as one instead of against each other and using a systems approach, we will be faced with mounting environmental risks in the coming years.


Source: The Guardian