Business | Analysis

Optimising how we use up scarce water resources

Water shortages already affecting energy sector in many countries

  • By Saadallah Al Fathi, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 12:39 August 18, 2013
  • Gulf News

More than once in this column I have discussed the issue of water and energy and concluded that the relationship is inseparable and that we need both to make each available to consumers. This comes from the fact that both are closely related to economic growth and improvement of the standard of living.

In a report by Deloitte Consultants, William Sarni (water strategy) and Joseph Stanislaw (energy and sustainability) spelt out the message loud and clear in the title itself — “No water, no energy. No energy, no water.”

We keep hearing about energy policy and energy security but not much about water. The report says: “Few have energy strategies and water strategies and even less have integrated energy-water strategies.”

Linked needs

This is no longer the right way to tackle the increasingly linked needs for human survival. Energy consumption as “an engine of economic growth” is likely to grow by more than 50 per cent by 2035 from its 2011 level of 12,275 million tonnes of oil equivalent while fresh water requirements may grow much faster to satisfy not only energy production but those of industry, agriculture and civil needs. All will be competing for “a scarce and precious commodity that should be managed.”

While 75 per cent of the earth is water, only 3 per cent of that is fresh water and 70 per cent of that is ice. Therefore, fresh water resources are under stress and need to be augmented by the use of desalination technology, an energy-intensive undertaking.

As few examples are illustrative. To produce one tonne of oil equivalent of conventional natural gas, 0.3 cubic metres of water is needed. This is almost multiplied by 12 when the gas is produced from shale. To complete one well in a shale oil or gas formation 20,000 cubic metres is needed.

The World Energy Council estimates that on average 40 barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil and four cubic metres of water for one tonne of coal. In the US, thermal power stations use 143 billion gallons (541 million cubic metres) of water every day, which is much more than irrigation or public use. Biofuels need a staggering amount of water, equal to 1,100 litres, for the production of one litre of ethanol.

At the same time, water extraction, treatment, transportation, distribution and the treatment of effluent and sewers require mounting amounts of energy, especially when water is delivered over long distances. For instance, California dedicates about 19 per cent of its electricity to water supply, and this is likely to increase when long-distance conveyance systems are employed.

Therefore, in a world where population growth, economic development and urbanisation are combined to increase the need for water and energy, the Deloitte report says “a constraint in either resource limits the other, and this nexus of supply and demand poses substantial risks.”

It adds: “meeting the energy and water requirements of the current and projected population is expected to require a radical rethinking of how to use resources. This can spur innovation in the form of low water footprint energy technologies and low energy footprint water technologies.” To meet the anticipated 40 per cent shortage of water supply by 2030, energy intensive technologies have to be employed to make more fresh water available and affordable.

Water shortages are already affecting the energy sector in many countries. “Several nuclear facilities in France were forced to shut down to prevent over-heating when they could no longer withdraw sufficient amounts of river water” for cooling.

In China, coal production and its use to fuel power stations “accounts for the largest share of industrial water use in China, representing about one-fifth of all the water consumed nationally.”

Regulated use

In an editorial in Hydrocarbon Processing Magazine titled “Water is the Next Oil”, the author, Loraine Huchler, states that water use must be regulated to limit unnecessary withdrawals. Huchler proposes that water using companies must first optimise current requirements by cutting down waste, a step that does not usually require much effort or investment.

The second step is to construct a water balance and monitor it at every step to keep track of the losses and costs of water treatment. The segregation and treatment of wastewater must target its reuse in the plant or off it. Scenario planning is needed to discover the impact of reduced water supply on the plant. The risk of water scarcity should justify any investment to mitigate its consequences.

Our region needs to be more concerned about these issues not only because of the scarcity of water but also because of the abundance of oil and gas resources.

— The writer is former head of the Energy Studies Department at the Opec Secretariat in Vienna.

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