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Energy-water nexus crucial to Middle East

Without access to the precious liquid, the oil and gas industry flounders, and without energy, the region goes thirsty

Gulf News

World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 to encourage people and governments to deal with the scarcity of this most important element. While water in nature is endlessly available, only 2.5 per cent of it is freshwater and 70 per cent of that is in polar and glacier ice.

Freshwater is not equally shared by countries and our region is famous for its shortage. Even Egypt and Iraq, endowed with large water resources, are experiencing shortages that are destined to increase.

Needless to say that agriculture is the world’s largest water user, accounting for 70 per cent of total global freshwater withdrawals. Food production is primarily dependent on that, but here I want to stress the energy-water nexus, or how much of each is needed to make the other available.

Industry is the second largest user of water resources and the energy industry is the most intensive user among all. With the exception of wind and photovoltaic power, water is an important input in energy production.

The World Energy Council (WEC) estimates an average of 40 barrels of water are needed for the production of one barrel of oil. In today’s shale oil and gas development and oil extraction from tar sands, or what is known as unconventional oil and gas, WEC estimates 90 to 150 barrels of water are required for each barrel of oil. The list goes on as four cubic metres of water are needed for every tonne of coal produced.

And in biofuel production, the ratio is a staggering 1,100 litres of water for a litre of ethanol. In electricity generation, thermal power stations in the US use 143 billion gallons of water every day, even more than in irrigation use.

In petroleum refining, gas processing and the petrochemical industries, large volumes of water are needed for cooling the products while a substantial amount of steam is also required to drive machinery or for heating purposes.

On the other side of the nexus, water has to be delivered to users by pumping it from its sources and sometimes it is transported by pipelines. Water treatment to get rid of impurities is very extensive, especially if the source is of low quality.

Industrial water treatment in power plants and other energy facilities is even more complex. All these operations require energy such that in the US, the transportation and purification of water consumes 4 per cent of all electricity. In California, water-related energy use consumes about 19 per cent of the state’s electricity, 30 per cent of its natural gas, and over 2 million barrels of diesel fuel every year.

Faced with the scarcity of water, some regions such as ours resorted to large-scale sea water desalination using large amounts of energy and specialised and expensive plants. In mid-2015, according to the International Desalination Association, 18,426 desalination plants operated worldwide, producing almost 87 million cubic metres (mcm) of freshwater a day.

Around 44 per cent of this capacity is located in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a lot more to come — at a growth rate of 7-9 per cent a year. Future requirements in Iraq involve a desalination capacity of almost 3 million cubic metres (mcm) a day for the production of oil alone.

In 2013, Deloitte spelt out the message in a report — ‘No water, no energy. No energy, no water’. They stressed the need for integrated energy-water strategies.

Therefore, in a world where population growth, economic development and urbanisation combine 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.”

The International Energy Agency in 2016 said that “The energy sector is responsible for 10 per cent of global water withdrawals, mainly for power plant operation as well as for production of fossil fuels and biofuels”, which amounted to 398 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2014. Consumption however is 48-bcm and the difference is returned to the resource after treatment, which involves energy consumption.

Oil and gas withdrawal and consumption are 10- and 8-bcm, while for biofuels it is 26- and 12-bcm respectively.

In the same year, “some 4 per cent of global electricity consumption was used to extract, distribute and treat water and wastewater, along with 50 million tonnes of oil equivalent of thermal energy, mostly diesel used for irrigation pumps and gas in desalination plants. Over the period to 2040, the amount of energy used in the water sector is projected to more than double,” said the IEA.

As water is said to be the “next oil”, our region needs to be more concerned about this nexus not only because of the scarcity of water, but because of the high energy requirements to bridge the gap.

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