By Dallas Blaney
For the first time, water emerged as a prominent theme in the 6th annual World Future Energy Summit. Consequently, water resource experts met this week in Abu Dhabi to offer their advice for optimizing the water-energy relationship.
To launch this discussion, Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of the Environment and Water Resources from Singapore asked what role governments should play in managing this relationship. Currently Singapore desalinates 40 percent of its water and expects this figure to increase to 80 percent by 2060. Because Singapore imports all of its energy, it has worked very hard to achieve the most cost effective strategy for treating its water. This does not mean, however, that governments are well equipped to make technology choices. Rather, the optimal role for government is to structure competitive bidding systems that endeavor to secure the best available technology at the best available price.
It seems that the UAE also learned this lesson. On the final day of the summit, Masdar announced its plans to launch a solar desalinization project. Like Singapore, Masdar will invest in research and development by inviting competitive bids to build three large scale desalinization plants. Masdar will fund 50 percent of the projects, although it remains unclear whether Masdar or its private sector partner will own the intellectual property rights. Ultimately, the goal is to not just develop intellectual property but also the human capacity needed to make the technology commercially and financially viable.
Ania Grobicki from the Global Water Partnership called attention to the need for social and institutional innovation, “so that people move away from their resource-hungry lifestyles.” Because the treatment and delivery of water is highly energy intensive, this innovation should therefore work to achieve greater resource conservation. This principle also applies to solar desalinization systems since “every liter of water that can be saved represents a considerable amount of energy saved.”
Several speakers commented on the need for greater synergy in institutional design, which can help avoid the inefficiencies that result from unnecessary jurisdictional competition. Several speakers also commented on the need for more robust participation in decision-making processes. The goal here is twofold. First, greater stakeholder participation has a tendency to empower individuals and communities by encouraging greater awareness of the status of water resources. Second, a broad diversity of viewpoints tends to yield more reflexive, and therefore more durable and effective, water governance systems.
Missing from this discussion was a concern about conserving water for nature. Since 1992, concerns about the sustainable management of freshwater resources have been articulated through the concept of integrated water resources management. This approach endeavors to balance and optimize the economic, social, and environmental demands on water resources at the river basin scale. The key problem however is that IWRM offers very little guidance for resolving situations involving tradeoffs among these resource demands. Of course, the most common solution is to privilege the economic demands to the detriment of social and environmental needs. Indeed, this logic is the driving force behind the dramatic expansion of hydro electrical systems in recent years.
Today, hydro accounts for roughly half of the global renewable energy portfolio. In 2008 , the Brisbane Declaration endeavored to solve this problem by calling upon water managers to privilege the needs of nature. To do so, the Declaration popularized the concept of environmental flows, which is the quantity, quality, and timing of water needed to sustain a dependent ecosystem. One of the problems with the conservation recommendations made during the International Water Summit is that they failed to specify what should be done with the water savings. Absent such a prescription, it is almost certain that water savings achieved in the energy sector will merely be spent by another another sector, like agriculture.
Ed Note: Travel expenses for the Author and TriplePundit were provided by Masdar.