UN Report: Rising demand for energy, from biofuels to shale gas, is a threat to freshwater supplies

The UN Building in New York City
The UN Building in New York City

Rising demand for energy, from biofuels to shale gas, is a threat to freshwater supplies that are already under strain from climate change, the United Nations said in a report last Friday. March 22 was World Water Day in the UN calendar. It urged energy companies to do more to limit use of water in everything from cooling coal-fired power plants to irrigation for crops grown to produce biofuels.

“Demand for energy and freshwater will increase significantly in the coming decades,” UN agencies said in the World Water Development Report. “This increase will present big challenges and strain resources in nearly all regions.” By 2030, the world will need 40 per cent more water and 50 per cent more energy than now, the report said. Water is under pressure from factors such as a rising population, pollution and droughts, floods and heatwaves linked to global warming.

Around the world, about 770 million of the world’s 7 billion people now lack access to safe drinking water, it said. And the energy sector accounts for about 15 per cent of water withdrawals from sources such as rivers, lakes and aquifers. “This interdependence calls for vastly improved co-operation” between water and energy, said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The report lamented the lack of influence of the water sector compared to what it called the “great political clout” of energy. All energy production used water, often as a coolant, it said.

Least water was used in wind and solar power, while heavy users included hydraulic fracking to produce shale gas or the extraction of oil from tar sands. Hydropower dams were sometimes built with little thought for other water users. And the report urged caution about biofuels, partly because of water used for irrigation. “China and India, the world’s two largest producers and consumers of many agricultural commodities, already face severe water limitations in agricultural production, yet both have initiated programmes to boost biofuel production,” it said. Zafar Adeel, head of the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, said that governments should re-think subsidies for both energy and water.

The UN General Assembly declared water a human right in 2010, strengthening arguments that basic supplies should be free. Energy companies say they try to limit water use. Exxon Mobil, for instance, said that net freshwater consumption at its operations fell 11 percent to 2.1 billion barrels in 2012 from 2011. The UN study said there were examples where energy could successfully recycle water. In Stockholm, buses and taxes run on biogas produced from waste water, which is rich in methane.

Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon – at the opening of the World Water Day celebrations in Tokyo – stressed that water must be used and electricity must be generated effectively so all users get their fare share. He further said that “climate change, driven in great part by the unsustainable use of energy, will exacerbate water stress and scarcity in many regions.” Michel Jarraud, the Chair of UN-Water echoed Ban’s message: “The report shows that there will be a significant increase in the use of energy. This puts additional pressure on freshwater resources which is further exacerbated by climate change. Increased collaboration is needed on all levels”. Jarraud said that “we have to take this seriously” and was happy that many Government Representatives were present in Tokyo in their roles as ultimate decision makers.

Finally, Taizo Nishikawa, Deputy Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization emphasized the importance of green industry with the sector being one of the thematic challenges tackled in the report. “Green industry will allow societies to develop,” Nishikawa said. “It will satisfy the need of a global population where resource efficiency is at the center.”

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