Interdependency of energy and water resources must be recognized, UN argues

24 March 2014

LONDON: Global demand for energy is placing significant pressure on limited water resources, the 2014 United Nations World Water Development Report acknowledges.

The UNESCO study argues that a failure to treat the energy and water sectors as interdependent will lead to shortages supplies of both. It states that coordination and planning are crucial for the sustainability of both systems.

At present, 768 million people globally do not have access to safe drinking water, and 1.3 billion people are not connected to an electric power grid. The study shows that the areas which suffer from inadequate access to clean water are also poorly serviced by electric power, highlighting how intertwined the two issues are.

The symbiotic nature of the water-energy dilemma is further verified by the fact that collection, transport and treatment of water require energy, while at the same time power technologies use large quantities of water in order to be operational. The UN agency has predicted that by 2035, the amount of water which will be used for energy could reach 20%. 

The report recommends that close attention should be given to the water requirements of energy sources when deciding which alternative power methods to prioritize. It notes that while shale gas extraction is now quite popular, the hydraulic fracturing which is necessary for its collection can be a significant drain on water resources and has the potential to contaminate water tables.

Renewable resourceswhich use much less water, have seen significant growth in recent years. Global consumption of wind and solar energy grew by 27% and 42% between 2000 and 2010 respectively, while hydroelectricity power now meets 16% of energy demand internationally.

However, UNESCO notes that renewable energy often needs to be supplemented by additional power sources which do require more water. 

The UN pointed to innovation in waste water treatment in Sweden, which has resulted in buses and taxis now running on bio-gas produced from waste water, as a commendable approach to tackling the universal problem. The researchers believe that the combined production of water and electricity may hold “the key to the future”.

Read the 2014 United Nations World Water Development Report 

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By Alana Ryan

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