Water-Energy Nexus Reaches Crisis Level in Asia

The challenge of meeting energy demand in the region may well come at the expense of water resources.

Smoke rises from a chimney at a coal chemical factory in Huaibei, east China's Anhui province, Aug. 14, 2013.

A coal-linked project in China's dry Inner Mongolia region has caused a local water table to plunge and a local lake to shrink.  In neighboring India, a thermal power plant has been forced to shut down because of severe water shortages.

In Southeast Asia, impoverished Laos risks destroying the spawning grounds of migratory fish species that feed millions of people along the key Mekong River as it pushes ahead with the controversial Xayaburi dam project aimed at selling electricity to power-hungry Thailand.

Wealthy Singapore, meanwhile, is consuming large amounts of of energy to overcome its water scarcity challenge even as the island nation's progress toward water self-sufficiency is considered exemplary.

Decisions made in Asia for water use and management and for energy production are having major impacts on each other and serious repercussions for the region, according to studies highlighted on World Water Day last week.

The nexus between water and energy is quite evident in the region largely because of poor and uneven access, and the cross use of the two resources for exploitation, officials say.

"Some of the statistics are quite startling," Shamshad Akhtar, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said in a speech last week when commemorating a World Water Day event in Bangkok.

He said that while 4.3 billion people or about 60 percent the global population live in Asia, people in the region only have access to 38 percent of the world’s fresh water. As a result, Asia has the lowest regional per capita water availability in the world.

In parallel, Akhtar said, Asia’s energy consumption also remains lower than the global average, but is expected to rise sharply in the next three decades, to drive the required pace of regional economic growth.

World Water Development Report

The 2014 United Nations World Water Development Report, entitled "Water and Energy," emphasizes how water is closely interdependent and interlinked with energy.

"Choices made in one domain have direct and indirect consequences on the other, positive or negative," said the report, released to mark World Water Day on March 22.

"The form of energy production being pursued determines the amount of water required to produce that energy," it said. "At the same time, the availability and allocation of freshwater resources determine how much—or how little—water can be secured for energy production."

In Asia, coal, the most prevalent energy product within the region, is expected to remain the main source of energy, despite serious concerns about water quality degradation as an effect of coal mining and the water quantity required for cooling thermal power plants, the U.N. report says.

In the water-scarce western regions of China, new industries and coal-fired power stations secure cooling water from local lakes and rivers, drawing down groundwater aquifers and building reservoirs to capture rainwater, "all of which disrupt water supplies to other local users and lead to unsustainable water use," the report says.

"Because of such activities, in Inner Mongolia it has been reported that the water table has dropped and grasslands such as Xilingol have become unproductive."

Plunging water table

Environmental group Greenpeace said one coal chemical project in  Inner Mongolia had extracted so much water in eight years of operation that it caused the local water table to drop by up to 100 meters (328 feet) and the local lake to shrink by 62 percent.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," the green group said in a report as China moves aggressively to ramp up coal production despite environmental and other concerns.

The U.N. report says the most recent Chinese Five Year Plan (2011−2015) calls for the creation of 14 large coal industry bases across western China, to include coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

But Greenpeace said China plans 16 mega coal power bases by 2015 that would consume 10 billion cubic meters of water annually, equivalent to one sixth of the Yellow River's annual flow.

The water-energy nexus in Asia can also be a strategic issue, as a major cause of diplomatic anxiety among neighbors in the region is the construction of dams on international rivers to generate electricity.

For example, Laos, in a desperate need for revenue due to lack of resources, is on a dam building drive to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" by selling hydropower electricity to its neighbors.

Its decision to move full steam ahead with the Xayaburi dam, the first dam across the main stem of the Lower Mekong, has met with criticism from its neighbors Cambodia and Vietnam as well as environmental groups.

The dam, along with the proposed Don Sahong dam also on the Mekong, poses a regional security threat for the some 60 million people in Southeast Asia who rely on fish and other products from the key regional artery for their nutrition and their livelihoods, environmental and conservation groups say.

Water security

By 2030, the dams in the Mekong River tributaries will have a substantial impact on water security because the mainstream river flows and the hydrological regime of the entire Mekong river basin will be altered, ESCAP warned in a recent report.

It will also result in significant changes in the ecology of Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, affecting ecosystem and farming productivity as well as fish migration and, by extension, compromising food security in the region, it said.

"If all the dams were built according to plan, the total loss in fish resources would be between 26 and 42 per cent, amounting to a devastating economic loss of around U.S. $476 million per year."

In developing Asia, water used for energy production will increase from 157 billion cubic meters in 2010 to 230 billion cubic meters by 2035.

"This is a very steep increase," ESCAP's Akhtar said. "As a finite resource, water is a potentially binding constraint on enhancing energy security in the region."

At the same time, energy is required for water uses, too.

While water is required to convert resources into electricity, be it through thermal, nuclear, hydro, or other sources , energy is needed at all stages of water extraction, treatment, and distribution—in agriculture, water supply and sanitation, cooling, and many other systems.

Groundwater use

In agriculture, the availability of low-cost pumps and poor irrigation services has led many farmers to increase their reliance on ground water.

While this has increased crop production and farmers' income, "there are costs: most notably increased energy demand for pumping and unsustainable rates of groundwater use," Asian Development Bank President Takehiko Nakao said at a recent "sustainable development" meeting in India.

To combat these trends, ADB is encouraging sustainable groundwater use through improved irrigation technologies.

As the energy used for pumping water makes up a large proportion of the cost of supplying municipal water, ADB is working with utilities to reduce water losses and also to introduce more energy efficient motors.

For example, ADB provided a grant to improve energy efficiency in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City water supply system by upgrading the pumps.

It also wants to help improve the efficiency of wastewater treatment processes in the region.

Some 80 percent of Asia's wastewater currently receives little or no treatment and causes widespread pollution.

"Treated wastewater is a valuable resource for maintaining river flows and for industrial and agricultural use—but requires energy," Nakao said.

ADB has begun working with a private enterprise in China in wastewater management.

Nakao believes upgrading wastewater treatment plants in China will enable the reuse of 20 percent of the country's wastewater by 2023.

World Bank initiative

The World Bank is also moving to highlight the challenges presented by water and energy.

It says it would be working with, among others, the National Energy Agency of China to look at the impact of potential water constraints in Beijing's upcoming 2016-2020 energy plan as well as its long term plans.

The World Bank this year launched Thirsty Energy, a global initiative to support countries’ efforts to address challenges in energy and water management "proactively."

Thirsty Energy has established a Private Sector Reference Group to share experience, to provide technical and policy advice, and to scale-up outreach efforts, the bank said.

"We hope to make more governments aware of the interdependencies and foreseeable pressure on water as a resource for energy generation," said Diego Rodriguez,  a senior economist at the World Bank's Water Unit.

"The World Bank is ready to assist client countries which seek to find and identify appropriate integrated approaches in order to anticipate water constraints in energy investments, and prevent risks to energy projects and their long-term energy planning," he said.

'Compelling' case

The bank says there is a "compelling" case to expeditiously improve integrated water and energy planning in order to avoid unwanted future scenarios.

At present, more than 780 million people lack access to potable water, and over 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, the bank says.

At the same time, estimates show that by 2035, global energy consumption will increase by 35 percent, while water consumption by the energy sector will increase by 85 percent.

Climate change will further challenge water and energy management by causing more water variability and intensified weather events, such as severe floods and droughts, the bank says.

Despite the water-energy nexus concerns, the bank warns that "the absence of integrated planning between these two sectors is socio-economically unsustainable."