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Global Energy Thirst Threatens Water Supplies, UN Says

Drip Irrigation Line is Checked on a Farm
The drip irrigation line is checked in a grove of almond trees on a farm in Firebaugh, California. Shale gas and oil production as well as biofuels “can pose significant risks” to water resources, pitting energy producers against farmers, factories and providers of drinking and sanitation services, the agency said ahead of tomorrow’s annual World Water Day. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Energy production will increasingly strain water resources in the coming decades even as more than 1 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people already lack access to both, according to a United Nations report.

“There is an increasing potential for serious conflict between power generation, other water users and environmental considerations,” said the UN World Water Development Report published today that focused on water and energy. Ninety percent of power generation is “water-intensive,” it said.

Shale gas and oil production as well as biofuels “can pose significant risks” to water resources, pitting energy producers against farmers, factories and providers of drinking and sanitation services, the agency said ahead of tomorrow’s annual World Water Day.

Water-related needs for energy production have tripled since 1995, according to GE Water, while more than half of the global cotton production is grown in areas with high water risks. Electricity demand is forecast to rise at least two-thirds by 2035, driven by population growth.

Infrastructure upgrades, smart meters and clean technologies would help conserve resources as “billions of gallons of water are leaked each day, and energy is required to clean and transport that water,” said Sensus, a U.S. developer of water-metering systems. “When water is wasted, so is energy.”

The energy industry “needs to understand that if they don’t take water into account, they will have problems,” Michel Jarraud, who heads the UN-Water agency, said from Paris. “Water supply is already a constraint for energy projects in some countries, especially in Asia.”

Energy-Water Demands

The warning comes as World Water Day events started today in Tokyo and elsewhere. The U.S. shale energy boom has sparked concerns that hydraulic fracturing, which uses high volumes of water to extract gas and oil from shale, may hurt local waters’ quality and strain supplies.

Water “is critical for energy. About 80 percent of the water used in industry goes to thermal power plants. That means the rest of industry consumes practically nothing,” said N.K. Ranganath, managing director of the India business of Grundfos AS, a Danish maker of water-pumping equipment. “As long as you’re producing thermal power, you require water. There’s no technology that replaces water in thermal power.”

Globally, as water demand increases, more than 40 percent of the population is expected to be living in areas of “severe water stress” by about 2050.

The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based adviser to oil-consuming nations, estimates energy production will require one-fifth of global water withdrawals by 2035 compared with 15 percent in 2010. Over the period, it forecasts water consumption, a measure of the volume taken and not returned to its source, will rise a “dramatic” 85 percent.

U.S. Drought

In the U.S., “water scarcity threatens to constrain burgeoning domestic oil and gas production from shale formations,” according to the IEA.

Texas’s drought has “heightened concerns about water availability,” it said. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows moderate to exceptional drought conditions in 37.5 percent of the contiguous states, almost all west of the Mississippi River.

In developing countries, water constraints regularly lead to power shortages such as when monsoon rains were delayed in India two years ago, creating more power demand and blackouts. A drought in China in 2011 limited hydropower generation along the Yangtze River, causing electricity shortages.

‘Energy Shortages’

“Droughts make energy shortages worse while lack of electricity reduces farmers’ ability to irrigate fields,” the UN report said. Water-pricing policies also play a role because they “rarely reflect the real cost” so energy producers aren’t encouraged to save.

About a fifth of the world’s aquifers are already over-exploited and water demand is expected to grow 55 percent by 2050 due to expanding populations and demand from factories, power plants and farming, the report said. At the same time, 2 billion people don’t have access to safe water and at least 1.3 billion lack electricity, most in Africa and Asia.

“Energy is perceived as big business that gets the attention of industry and politicians and attracts more investment than water,” Jarraud said. Yet “to satisfy energy demand, we are adopting methods that require more water” such as shale projects and cultivating crops for biofuels.

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