Water Energy Matters

Issues related to the water-energy nexus


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The widening water-energy gap in China

To meet water demands, Beijing have started melting snow. (Image courtesy of Agence France-Presse)

To meet water demands, Beijing have started melting snow. (Image courtesy of Agence France-Presse)

On a wintry morning in Beijing in 2010, two large vehicles drove around Tiananmen Square with a rather odd objective. Instead of trying to melt snow to clear the roads, these vehicles, equipped with high-powered heaters, were instead melting snow and collecting it to increase the city’s water supply. Designated snow-melting areas were spread across the city. The snow collected would be stored in dammed sections of three rivers that run through the municipality and eventually be used for road cleaning, irrigation, and to supplement river levels.

Beijing had to take these snow-melting measures to meet the demands of its rapidly-growing population: the city’s consumption of 3.55 billion cubic meters (938 billion gallons) of water in 2009 surpassed its water supply of 2.18 billion cubic meters (576 billion gallons). In 2010, Beijing’s population was 19.6 million; in 2011, it was almost 20.2 million. In one year, the city grew by 600,000 people — basically the size of Boston.

The water-energy gap
What is happening in Bejing is a microcasm of China’s growing problem of increasing energy demands and decreasing water supply. This is not unique to China. In previous posts, we have seen examples of this in the U.S., the Middle East, and Australia. However, it is particularly stunning in the case of China because it is the world’s most populous nation and has the second largest economy. Furthermore, China is the world’s driest countries.

Over the last decade alone, China’s economy created 70 million new jobs. According to the World Bank, this year, the same economy generated the world’s largest markets for cars, steel, cement, glass, housing, energy, power plants, wind turbines, solar panels, highways, high-speed rail systems, airports — the list goes on. China’s economy has increased more than eightfold since the mid-1990s and water consumption has increased more than 15 percent in that period. At the moment that China is solidifying its standing as a superpower, competition between energy and water threatens to halt its progress.

The gap is signified by a converging of three important trends which highlights the crucial relationship of the water-energy nexus: rising economic development, increasing energy demand, and water scarcity.

The gap is exacerbated by growth and climate change
China has roughly 617 billion cubic meters (163 trillion gallons) of water available for all uses. About 63 percent is for agriculture, 12 percent is for municipal and domestic use, and 23 percent for industry use.

China’s total water resource has dropped more than 13 percent since 2000, meaning it has lost 350 billion cubic meters (93 trillion gallons) of its water supply. To put this in this perspective, each year, China has lost as much water as the amount that flows through the mouth of the Mississipi River in nine months. Chinese climatologists say a lot of this is because of climate change, which is disrupting patterns of rain and snowfall.

In that same period since 2000, coal production has tripled to 3.47 billion metric tons (3.83 billion short tons) a year. National projections say that the country’s coal industry will need to produce an additional one billion metric tons of coal annually by 2020.

Freshwater needed for mining, processing, and consuming coal accounts for 80 percent of industrial water use in China; at roughly 112  billion cubic meters (30 trillion gallons) a year, coal industry consumes one-fifth of the country’s water. China’s demand for energy, particularly for coal, is outpacing its freshwater supply.

Wiki_avg annual precipitation China

Most of China’s precipitation occur in the south while the north and west are relatively dry. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Beijing’s dire need for water also reveals another constraint of China’s water supply, which in and of itself is not new. 80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt (two major sources of freshwater supply) occurs in the south, while the mostly desert regions of the north and west receive 20 percent of the precipitation.

What’s new is that China’s surging economic growth is fueling a fast-expanding industrial sector. Industry uses 70 percent of the country’s energy, and more energy supplies is needed to meet the booming growth. However, unlike its water supply, China’s coal reserves (its main energy resource) are mostly found in the north. The problem, say government officials, is that there is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those reserves, and still develop the urban and manufacturing centers that China envisions for the region.

What the Chinese government is and is not doing
The national and provincial governments have been incredibly effective in enacting and enforcing a range of water conservation and efficients measures. These policies have sharply reduced waste, shifted water from agriculture to industry, and slowed the growth in national water consumption. For example, Beijing and China’s major cities are retrofitting their sewage treatment systems to recycle wastewater for use in washing clothes, flushing toilets, and other greywater applications. In short, China has been radically changing traditional approaches to water management.

Though it appears that many levels of government leadership and management clearly understand the crucial relationship between water and energy, they are focusing only on a particular aspect of the nexus. Fuqiang Yang, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate Solutions project in Beijing, captures this mindset well: “People outside China talk about [greenhouse gas] emissions. Inside China, water is the highest priority.”

The irony is that the increasing greenhouse gas emissions coming from the fast-expanding coal industry is contributing to the water shortage problem. Emissions are the main contributor of climate change, which scientists say is responsible for disrupting patterns of and decreasing rain and snowfall in China.

Finding solutions to address freshwater shortages is important in the short term. However, most of the current efforts to mitigate water scarcity are “band-aid” solutions (melting snow, retrofitting sewage systems, rerouting water geographically, etc.), while the main cause of the issue — the the expansion of industry which demand more coal to be burned, which in turn affects climate patterns, causing less rainfall — remains largely unaddressed. For now, anyway.

The sutures won’t hold
Another way the government is trying to reduce freshwater consumption is through transitions to renewable energy sources, which require less water than fossil fuel sources. China has launched enormous new programs of solar, wind, hydro, and seawater-cooled nuclear power. However, this is not making that much of a dent on supplying current energy demands, 70% of which is supplied by coal.

The water-energy ravine is here manifested in this image as a drainage pipe at the Baorixile coal mine in Inner Mongolia. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace)

The water-energy ravine is physically manifested in this image as a pipe drains used water at the Baorixile coal mine in Inner Mongolia. (Image courtesy of Greenpeace)

Today, China consumes more than 600 billion cubic meters (159 trillion gallons) of water annually. By 2020, China, the largest producer and consumer of coal, will mine and use up to 4.5 billion metric tons (5 billion short tons) of it. Largely as a result of this, the country’s consumption of water is projected to reach 670 billion cubic meters (177 trillion gallons) annually.

China has enough coal. The globally-significant question that needs to be answered is where China will find enough water to make developing new coal reserves possible. While they help, band-aid solutions such as melting snow won’t be able to bridge the increasingly gaping ravine between energy demands and water shortages.

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Desalination, part I: The challenges of applying ethics in water scarcity

One of the most iconic movie of the 1990’s that foreshadows what the harsh environments of a resource-scarce future may look like is Waterworld. The movie opens with a voice-over narrator explaining that the polar ice caps have melted and the planet is covered by water. The camera pans from an image of Earth into a lone trimaran sailing in a vast, endless sea.

The harsh environmental future of Waterworld. (Video courtesy of YouTube)

Within a few shots, the opening scene has not only established a vibrant image of an extreme and dire future, but has illustrated the conspicuous lack of basic resources that most of us in developed countries take for granted — things such as potable water; land for growing food and raising animals; and means of electricity generation. The male protagonist Mariner, in his post-apocalyptic warrior dress, pees into a small container. He then pours the urine into a rudimentary, homemade filter of funnels and gizmos, and drinks what comes out the other side — a process called desalination.

Drinking one’s own (albeit filtered) urine signals a certain direness under conditions of extreme survival. But desalination — the process by which unpotable water, such as seawater, brackish water, and wastewater, is purified into freshwater for human consumption and use — is not some far-fetched technology we will eventually need in a distant future.

Desalination’s recent global development
Desalination technology has been used for centuries, if not longer, largely as a means to convert seawater to drinking water aboard ships and carriers. Advances in the technology’s development in the last 40 years has allowed desalination to provide water at large scale.

From a global perspective, desalination technology is applied for several purposes: providing freshwater for industrial sectors; supplying drinkable water for the domestic and public sectors; and acquiring water for emergency situations, such as army and refugee operations.

Desalination plays a particularly crucial role in sustaining life and economy in the Persian Gulf. According to Corrado Sommaria, the president of the International Desalination Association (IDA): “Some countries in the Gulf rely on desalination to produce 90 percent or more of their drinking water, and the overall capacity installed in this region amounts to about 40% of the world’s desalinated water capacity.” Much of this is in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.

global desalination capacity

Global desalination capacity by country and total capacity. (Image courtesy of Desalination: A National Perspective)

The remaining global capacity is mainly in North America, Europe, Asia (which each have about 15 percent), and North Africa (which has six percent). (A facility’s rated capacity is the full output it is technically capable of, though in reality, it usually produces under that rated value.)  Australia‘s capacity is also increasing substantially. Global desalination capacity has been increasing dramatically since 1960 to its 2008 value of 42 million cubic meters of water daily (m3/day). Of this cumulative capacity, approximately 37 million m3/day is in use. From the above graph, we can see that worldwide desalination capacity more than doubled between 1993 and 2003, and continues to grow steadily today.

Proponents and critics of desalination
Estimates indicate that, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. Desalinated water is possibly one of the only water resources that does not depend on climate patterns. Desalination appears especially promising and suitable for dry regions.

In one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects in its history, Australia’s five largest cities are spending $13.2 billion on desalination plants. In two years, when the last plant is scheduled to be up and running, these cities will draw up to one-third of their water from the sea.

Proponents of desalination, like IDA, argue that it sustains population growth, creates jobs, and even supports the development of  energy industries (such as the oil and gas industries in the Middle East). Desalination stops dependence on long-distance water sources and prevents local traditional water sources from being over-exploited. Furthermore, research and development has made great strides in making desalination plants increasingly energy efficient and cost-effective.

However, there are a number of desalination plants worldwide that have been described as uneconomical and unproductive.  Many environmentalists and economists oppose any further expansion of desalination because of its price and effects on the environment. Energy is the most expensive component of running a desalination plant; it is often responsible for one-third to more than half of the cost. Therefore, the cost of desalinated freshwater is more vulnerable to the fluctuation of energy prices than any other water source.

A desalination intake pipeline near Nuweiba, Egypt. (Image courtesy of prilfish)

A desalination intake pipeline near Nuweiba, Egypt. (Image courtesy of prilfish)

Environmentally, desalination plants emits large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions because they are so energy-intense. Furthermore, they degrade marine environments through both the intake and discharge processes. Marine organisms such as invertebrates, fish, and even mammals are killed on the intake screen and smaller organisms, such as eggs, larvae, and smaller fish, that are able to pass through the screen are killed during processing stages. After separating the impurities from the water, the plant discharges the waste, also known as brine, back into the sea. Because brine contains much higher concentrations of salt, it causes harm to the surrounding marine habitat.

In Australia, the mega infrastructure project is drawing fierce criticism and civic protests. Many citizens are angry about rising water bills and environmentalists are wary of the plants’ effect on the climate. Australia relies heavily on coal to generate most of its electricity and is already a major emitter of greenhouse gases — the principle cause of climate change. Ironically, one of the main reasons the country is in need of freshwater is because it’s still recovering from a decade-long drought that the government says was deepened by climate change. Therefore, desalination, which initially appears as an answer for providing freshwater, may in the long run exacerbate the intertwined energy- and water-scarcity cycle.

As scarcity increasingly becomes reality, an appeal to ethics will be challenging
The sentiments of the anti-desalination campaigner in the video below echoes this irony: “It is by a mile the most environmentally-unsound way toward security.” He and other critics say that more environmentally-friendly methods should be exhausted before resorting to desalination. These include mandating more efficient appliances, using less water, or recycling used water.

Australia’s desalination plant provides controversial solution to one of the world’s driest countries. (Video courtesy of Al Jazeera English)

When a society is accustomed to a certain level of access to a resource, it’s hard to ask its citizens to lower their consumption or reuse water based on the argument that it is an ethical choice. In many instances, we observe individual behaviors change in response to policy mandates or market costs. But when can we say that we’ve exhausted all other ways that are less environmentally-damaging? How much should consumption be reduced? How do we decide which water needs are necessary (e.g., water for drinking, agriculture, electricity generation) and which ones aren’t (e.g., water for golf courses) for a certain quality of life?

Waterworld highlights the harsh decisions people face in a scarce-resource future because of the heightened awareness for survival. Pirates raid small pockets of human settlements for resources, they have no qualms about kidnapping a child for the map tattooed on her back, and paranoid atoll residents are willing to kill the Mariner out of distrust. Violence pervades and there is little sense of civility or ethical codes of conduct.

Though the movie is suggested to take place in 2500, it is not hard to imagine that tensions and battling interests over resources will intensify in the not-so-distant future. Making ethical decisions about fair and equal distribution of resources is a challenge today, and will become increasingly more difficult as those resources diminish — even with the most sophisticated of technological developments.