Synergistic Solutions to the Water Energy Nexus

March 22 was World Water Day and the theme for 2014 is Water and Energy. Water and energy can be perceived as almost synonymous. Water is required to generate energy and water is also a major draw on energy. The fifth edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR 2014) reiterates the point that water and energy are closely interconnected and highly interdependent. Choices made and actions taken in one domain can greatly affect the other, positively or negatively. Trade-offs need to be managed to limit negative impacts and foster opportunities for synergy.

Managing the water-energy nexus in a climate change worldApproximately 8 percent of global energy generation is used for pumping, treating and transporting water. Both water and energy are also fundamental to agriculture. With growing populations and decreasing supplies, we are headed towards water shortages that will have truly global impacts. By 2015, energy demand is expected to increase by 35 percent and water consumption by the energy sector will increase by 85 percent. These issues will be further compounded by the impacts of climate change.

As pointed out by the UN, there are massive inequities in terms of the water energy nexus. While some waste vast quantities of water and energy, there are 780 million people who lack access to potable water, and over 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity.  A total of 2.7 billion people are affected by water scarcity for at least one month each year.

Sustainable management of water resources is critical to the long-term health of the population, the economy, and the environment. Over the last decade, water has become a key concern of governments and businesses.

Public ignorance 

Americans do not know very much about water use, let alone the best strategies to conserve water. This view was born out in a national online survey titled, Perceptions of Water Use by author Shahzeen Attari, of Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. According to the survey, the majority of people claimed that the best way to save water was to take shorter showers. However, the best strategy for conserving water is to focus on efficiency improvements such as replacing toilets and retrofitting washing machines. The study suggests that the average American consumes twice as much water as they think they do.

People also had no idea about how water intensive food production is. Many of the foods that are staples of the western diet are heavily dependent on inordinate amounts of water. For example, 1 kilo of wheat uses 1,500 litres of water, while producing 1 kilo of beef consumes 15,000 litres of water.

While public education is crucial, it will be years before people apprehend and change their lifestyles to responsibly address water scarcity. The woeful state of the general public’s awareness about water issues increases the onus on governments and businesses. Unlike the general public, governments and businesses are being forced to address water issues.

Water stewardships steps: a guide for business

The WWF has developed the water stewardships steps approach to help guide companies. Their guidance involves 5 interdependent steps.

  1. Water Awareness: This step reviews how water impacts business and how business impacts water. Water awareness can also help companies to ‘sell’ the water story within and highlight how a company is perceived by others. It can also address associated risks that influence strategy and interventions.
  2. Knowledge of Impact: This concerns a company’s water footprint, both direct (company operations) and indirect (supply chain). This involves measurement, impact assessment and the wider context of global issues associated with water. Hot-spot and risk analysis can help drive the understanding of these impacts.
  3. Internal Action: This involves strategic prioritization including outlining goals, targets, actions, and plans that will help tackle the more immediate solutions to the problem. It incorporates crucial activities like company targets to reduce baseline water use; launch of water efficiency pilot projects; engagement with employees, consumers and marketing to address opportunities and risks; improvement of water quantity and quality reporting; and pollution prevention. Other dimensions of internal action may include beginning the process of engaging suppliers, and assessments on how to take action to realize supply chain improvements through alternative sourcing, product innovation, or improved management of water in the production of raw materials.
  4. Stakeholder engagement: This is about working with others. This translates to engagement with stakeholders (other companies, NGOs, sector initiatives, public agencies, and standard-setting bodies) to help mitigate basin-related risks, boost reputation on water issues, and build brand trust and loyalty.
  5. Influence governance: Here we are talking about actions ranging from advocacy, influencing or lobbying, partnership, financial support, facilitation, institutional strengthening etc. The opportunities through engagement can mean significant risk reduction, enhanced social and legal license to operate and clearer and consistent laws and regulations that govern company water use.

Water footprint standard

In light of the looming water crisis, there is growing interest in efforts to manage water use in manufacturing. One iniative designed to address the crisis is known as “water footprint,” defined as “the volume of freshwater appropriated to produce the product, taking into account the volumes of water consumed and polluted in the different steps of the supply chain.” The Global Water Footprint Standard is an important step toward solving the world’s ever increasing water problems.

Thirsty energy: a guide for governments

To support political decision makers’ efforts to proactively address challenges in energy and water management, the World Bank has embarked on a global initiative called thirsty energy which quantifies the tradeoffs and identifies “synergies” between water and energy resource management. Thirsty Energy tailors approaches depending on the available resources, modeling experience, and institutional and political realities of a country. To assist with the project, a Private Sector Reference Group (PSRG) has been established to share experience, to provide technical and policy advice, and to scale-up outreach efforts. Thirsty Energy also provides the tools and technical solutions required to assess the economic, environmental and social implications of water constraints in energy and power expansion plans.

Hope for the future 

We will be seeing more focus on water in the coming years. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are going to replace the Millennium Development Goals and this will likely increase the focus on accessible water and energy services around the world.

While we may be facing unprecedented global water shortages there have also been some new developments that give us reason to hope. One of the most promising finds is the recent discovery of massive caches of water.  As reported in the Journal Nature, late last year, scientists discovered vast aquifers of fresh water underneath the sea floor. According to the report, nearly 120,000 cubic miles of low-salinity water has been found beneath the continents of South Africa, North America, Australia, and China.

A truly innovative and readily accessible source of water comes in the form of new fog harvesting techniques. This method of capturing water is commonly practiced by some plants and insects. New and improved technique for harvesting water from fog comes from researchers at MIT, working in collaboration with colleagues in Chile. According to the study published online in the journal Langmuir, a publication of the American Chemical Society, MIT researchers have developed a breakthrough in highly efficient fog harvesting. According to Chilean investigators if just 4 percent of the water contained in the fog could be captured it would meet the needs of some of the nation’s most drought stricken areas.

In the Fall of 2013, the National Water Research Institute (NWRI) staged the Clarke Prize Conference on sustainable water resources. The topics discussed included energy, climate change, economics, membrane based water treatment, stormwater treatment and municipal water treatment. The Conference also included a number of water related innovations from leading edge academic researchers and utility managers.

One of the highlights of the conference was a presentation by Pedro Alvarez, Professor of Engineering at Rice University in Texas. Alvarez is a global leader in enhancing water resource sustainability through water pollution control. His presentation focused on microbial control through nanotechnology. Microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa are the leading cause of waterborne disease worldwide. Research applying microbiology and nanotechnology has the potential to develop greener disinfection and microbial control technologies for safer, broadly accessible, and more affordable water supplies.

Renewable energy

While renewable energy may not be a panacea, it is a crucial part of sustainable solutions, including better water stewardship. Renewables are not only emissions free, they also use far less water than fossil fuels. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) titled, Water Smart Power, more than 40 percent of US freshwater withdrawals are used for power plant cooling, and they lose several billion gallons of freshwater every day through evaporation. The UCS report indicates that the combination of renewables and energy efficiency could reduce power plant water usage by 97 percent from current levels by 2050 and cut carbon emissions by 90 percent from current levels.

The limited supply of water and energy must be understood alongside growing demand. To manage both water and energy we need to acknowledge their fundamental interdependence.

Water is the key to our survival and our hopes for prosperity, it is at the heart of the challenges we face and central to sustainability.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory, courtesy flickr


Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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