Water Energy Matters

Issues related to the water-energy nexus


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What about all these other nexuses? Nexi?

More and more, organizations are not only talking about the water-energy nexus — but the food-water-energy nexus, or the energy-water-food-climate nexus.

Academia and Research Institutions
Last year, on Earth Day, Stanford University started organizing an annual gathering that brought together many of its schools and institutes into conversation with each other. The “Connecting the Dots: The Food, Energy, Water, and Climate Nexussymposium brought together the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, the Center on Food Security and the Environment, the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences.

The 2011 “Connecting the Dots” Annual Symposium. (Video courtesy of Stanford University)

In the above video, the opening speaker explains why the interdisciplinary gathering is important: “The great global challenges of the century of providing clean and affordable enrgy, adequate food and improved nutrition, clean water for people and ecosystems, a protected and sustained environment and planetary life support system–all these are tightly linked to each other.” The speakers presented on a range of topics, including global food challenge for the 21st century, competition for biomass as both a source for food and energy, and how aquaculture is linked to food security.

As a graduate student who is familiar with the bureaucracies of higher education, I realize that it is no small feat to bring so many schools and institutions together in one room and have them talk about the intersection of all these issues. The fact that these gatherings are happening signals to me that talking about these issues in an interconnected way is important because the challenges we face are becoming more and more urgent.

International and Regional Organizations
But it’s not only academics and researchers who are recognizing this. Just this past week, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP18, was held in Doha, Qatar. A panel discussion called “It Never Rains in the GCC” focused on the energy-water-food-climate nexus. The panel brought together experts from international, governmental, and organizations such as World Economic Forum, Global Water Partnership, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, New York University, and UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose political and economic alliance of six Gulf countries: Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. The title of the panel refers to the fact that the Gulf region is very arid and suffers from extreme water scarcity. The area is heavily dependent on food imports and its freshwater supplies come largely from desalination processes. In response, GCC governments have announced over $100 billion of investments in desalination and water recycling by 2016, as well as over $200 billion of investments in energy efficiency and renewable and nuclear energy, following the development model launched the UAE.

afp_gulf solar

Gulf countries are undertaking massive renewable energy projects to address water-energy-climate nexus issues. UAE has emerged as a pioneer in this sector with solar initiatives. (Image courtesy of AFP)

Despite the region’s well-known oil resources, the UAE wants to substantially incorporate renewable sources to the traditional mix of fossil fuels for energy generation. The country set the region’s first renewable energy targets, which mandate over 2500 megawatts of solar, waste-to-energy, and wind projects in coming years. To address issues related to the energy-water-food-climate nexus, it has also implemented things like sustainability building and public lighting codes, air-conditioning performance, agricultural and landscaping efficiency standards to reduce energy and water consumption.

Non-Profits
In the non-profit arena, environmentally-oriented philanthropic organizations such as Grace Communications Foundations are helping consumers recognize this at the individual level. Their food-water-energy nexus home page uses a venn diagram (remember these from elementary school?) to visually highlight the intersection of these issues. They explain that “because actions related to one system can impact one or both of the other systems, it is necessary to take a nexus approach.”

grace_nexusGrace Foundations focuses on education and provides suggestions on how people, at the individual level, can reduce their impacts on the nexus. Some of these suggestions include things like installing solar photovoltaic panels in the home, buying energy-efficient appliances, using mass transit or biking, saving water (and thus energy) by taking shorter showers, eating less meat (livestock requires a lot of water), etc.

So what?
It is important to recognize that these organizations aren’t approaching the food-water-energy nexus or the water-energy-food-climate nexus (pick whichever word you’d like to come first) in the same way.

Scholars and researchers at Stanford are looking at how issues in one of these areas affect those in another and at patterns of connections at different levels, for example, how climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations in developing countries. GCC governments’ responses to the nexus is mitigation- and management-oriented, with a heavy development and investment component to it. Grace Foundations provides information and educational tools to make the public more aware, and aims at helping individuals, as consumers, make small changes to decrease their impact on nexus issues.

The “a-b-c” nexus terms are becoming buzzwords. First it was “a-b” — water-energy, energy-food. Now it’s “c-a-b” — food-water-energy. And even “a-b-c-d” — water-energy-food-climate. Which word or permutation of words will get tacked on next?

Despite the fact that the “nexus” terms may be getting a bit overused, it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Meaning that it’s very significant that people from different societal sectors — academia, government, civil society — are all recognizing that these environmental issues of water, energy, food, and climate are tightly interlinked. Our environment is a delicate ecosystem of checks and balances and what happens in one of these areas have significant impacts on what happens in the others.


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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.