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UN Report Highlights Risks (And Rewards) At The Water-Energy Nexus


The United Nations (U.N.) shines a light on the critical issue of freshwater resources – and linkages with energy – with the March 21 release of the 2014 World Water Development Report (WWDR). Produced by the U.N.'s World Water Assessment Program (U.N.-Water), WWDR 2014 is being released in conjunction with special events sponsored around the world as part of this year's World Water Day celebrations on Saturday.

Forecasting that the global population will need 40 percent more water by 2030, the ambitious report highlights the threat to water supplies posed by the conflicting interests of a growing global population for energy and food, as well as water itself. The list is extensive, including regulations and governance that lead to perverse outcomes, along with threats from water contamination, pollution, climate change and the often profligate ways in which we use and manage freshwater resources.

WWDR 2014 also offers potential solutions, focusing in particular on governance at the water-energy nexus. "Energy and water are at the top of the global development agenda," Rector of United Nations University David Malone, this year's coordinator of World Water Day on behalf of U.N.-Water together with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said in a press release.

WWDR 2014's overarching messages:

  • Water requires energy, and energy requires water.

  • Supplies are limited, and demand is increasing.

  • Saving energy is saving water; saving water is saving energy.

  • The "bottom billion" urgently need access to both water and sanitation services, as well as electricity.

  • Improving water and energy efficiency in all sectors is imperative, as are coordinated, coherent and concerted policies.

  • Significant policy gaps exist in this nexus at present, and the U.N. plays an instrumental role in providing evidence and policy-relevant guidance.

As UNU Rector Malone continued:
“Through this day, we seek to inform decision-makers, stakeholders and practitioners about the interlinkages, potential synergies and trade-offs, and highlight the need for appropriate responses and regulatory frameworks that account for both water and energy priorities. From UNU's perspective, it is essential that we stimulate more debate and interactive dialogue around possible solutions to our energy and water challenges."

UNIDO Director-General Li Yong emphasized the importance of water and energy for inclusive, sustainable development.
"There is a strong call today for integrating the economic dimension, and the role of industry and manufacturing in particular, into the global post-2015 development priorities,” Director-General Li noted.

“Experience shows that environmentally sound interventions in manufacturing industries can be highly effective and can significantly reduce environmental degradation. I am convinced that inclusive and sustainable industrial development will be a key driver for the successful integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions."

Facts about the water-energy nexus:

  • Ninety percent of power production is water intensive

The International Energy Agency estimated global water withdrawals for energy production in 2010 at 583 billion cubic meters (representing some 15 percent of the world's total withdrawals, or roughly 75 percent of industrial water withdrawals), of which 66 billion cubic meters was consumed.

By 2035, withdrawals could increase by 20 percent and consumption by 85 percent -- driven via a shift towards higher efficiency power plants with more advanced cooling systems (that reduce water withdrawals but increase consumption) and increased production of biofuel. Local and regional impacts of biofuels could be substantial, as their production is among the most water intensive types of fuel production.

  • There is an increasing risk of conflict between power generation, other water users and environmental considerations.

Thermal power generation accounts for roughly 80 percent of global electricity production and is responsible for roughly half of all water withdrawals in the United States and in several European countries.

Several factors determine how much cooling water is needed by thermal power plants, including the fuel type, cooling system design and prevailing meteorological conditions. However, efficiency is often the main factor that drives water requirements: The more efficient the power plant, the less heat has to be dissipated, thus less cooling is required.

Hydroelectricity, which can also require abundant water supplies, accounts for about 15 percent of global electricity production.

By 2035, global water withdrawals for energy are expected to increase by 20 percent, whereas water consumption for energy is expected to increase by 85 percent.

Unconventional oil (e.g., oil/tar sands) and gas production (e.g., "fracking") are generally more water intensive than conventional oil and gas production.

Facts about water

  • According to the U.N., 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water -- although by some estimates, the number of people whose right to water is not satisfied could be as high as 3.5 billion -- and 2.5 billion are without sanitation.

  • Total freshwater withdrawals are believed to have increased by about 1 percent per year since the late 1980s.

  • Water demand in terms of water withdrawals is projected to increase by some 44 percent by 2050 due to growing demands from manufacturing, thermal power generation (mainly from the expansion of coal and gas powered plants), agriculture and domestic use.

  • The rate of groundwater abstraction is increasing by 1 to 2 percent per year, adding to water stress in several areas. Recent evidence has shown that groundwater supplies are diminishing, with an estimated 20 percent of the world's aquifers being over-exploited, and some massively so.

  • Desalinated water involves the use of at least 75.2 TWh per year, which is about 0.4 percent of global electricity consumption.

  • It is estimated that more than 80 percent of used water worldwide -- and up to 90 percent in developing countries -- is neither collected nor treated, threatening human and environmental health.

U.N.-Water's 2014 report also incorporates an extensive range of pertinent facts about energy:

  • Today, 1.3 billion people live without electricity, and roughly 2.6 billion use solid fuels (mainly biomass) for cooking.

  • By 2035, energy demand is projected to grow by more than one-third, and demand for electricity is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2035.

  • Modern biofuels represent only 0.8 percent of global final energy consumption, but their contribution to energy supply is expected to grow rapidly. If bioenergy feedstock is produced on irrigated lands, then the potential impact of biofuels on water resources is also of major concern.

  • Fossil fuel consumption subsidies totaled $523 billion in 2011 (an increase of almost 30 percent over the total for 2010). Financial support for renewable energy, by comparison, amounted to only $88 billion in 2011, and increased by another 24 percent in 2012.

  • With the global energy market estimated at $6 trillion annually, the energy sector is synonymous with "big business." The energy sector is well funded, highly organized, and attracts greatly more political attention than water in most countries.
Image credit United Nations/Flickr
Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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