Asia Pacific plays critical role in energy-water cooperation: UN

A United Nations Water Development report, released on World Water Day, examines forms of energy production that could further stress water availability, since these primarily fossil fuel sources require vast amounts of freshwater.

wastewater solutions
The United Nations recognised water recycling as key to future water and energy needs. Organic matter extracted from treated wastewater offers potential for producing cleaner energy resources while providing additional supply of water to the growing global demand for this precious resource. Image: Shutterstock

The interdependence between energy and water has never been more pronounced than it is now in the Asia Pacific, where sourcing its energy supply, primarly coal, has severely contributed to the scarcity of water in the region, said the United Nations in a report released on Friday, just before World Water Day.

Called the United Nations World Water Development Report 2014 (WWDR), the 230-page document launched in Tokyo, Japan is a comprehensive review of data and scientific investigations from various UN agencies on the state of water around the world. It widely explores the nexus between water and energy – the theme of this year’s World Water Day, which has been observed every March 22 since 1993.

According to the report, coal production is set to continue in the Asia Pacific, where China and India are already extracting more than half of the world’s total coal output.

Producing and using this fossil fuel requires vast amounts of freshwater, such as in removing impurities at the mining stage and cooling power plants as it generates electricity from the coal.

Electric power plants, which produce 80 per cent of electricity worldwide, use significantly large quantities of water for the cooling process, stressed the report. 

Currently, about 15 per cent of water is used for energy production globally and this is likely to increase by 20 per cent by 2035 as demand for electricity is expected to rise by 70 per cent by the same year, due to population and economic growth. Majority of these developments will take place in the region, the report noted.

Aside from the vast amount of water required, pollutants that build up in the water used in the power plant, if discharged to a lake or river, could harm fish and other marine life, according to the United States Environment Protection Agency.

A recent example is the coal ash spill in North Carolina’s Dan River in the US. State regulators have found that a pipe from Duke Energy had a leak that spewed tonnes of coal ash into the river – a source of drinking water for residents of Danville, Virginia.

Last year, the World Resources Institute reported that 73 per cent of power plants in India are located in water-scarce or stressed areas. In addition, there are mounting concerns of water scarcity in the Indian part of the Western Indus Basin due to digging of millions of private wells and inefficient irrigation techniques. This over exploitation of water tables or groundwater sources could hinder the expansion plans for coal power plants in India and China, the UN report said.

The need to coordinate water and energy management policies will play an important role to address these challenges ahead. The report suggested that revising pricing practices should be considered to “ensure that water and energy are sold at rates that reflect their real cost and environmental impact more accurately”

Globally, 20 per cent of all aquifers or the underground layer of of water-bearing rocks, are believed to be overexploited, it added.

Thus, the need to coordinate water and energy management policies will play an important role to address these challenges ahead. The report suggested that revising pricing practices should be considered to “ensure that water and energy are sold at rates that reflect their real cost and environmental impact more accurately”.

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO who jointly presented the report with UN-Water chair Michel Jarraud, said the report brings to the global platform the highly interlinked issue between the management of water and energy supply. “This interdependence calls for vastly improved cooperation between these sectors because there will be no sustainable development without better access to water and energy for all,” she stressed.

Some areas within the Asia Pacific region have abundant water sources and at least 11 countries are using freshwater below 10 per cent of the total actual available resources, according to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific or UNESCAP. Despite that, almost 380 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, the report highlighted.

“Compounding chronic uncertainties in water availability and quality is the fact that this region is the most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the form of extreme weather-related disasters,” it added.

The report emphasised that such scenarios would require countries in the region to step up its ability to address issues of water availability and distribution.

Rethinking biofuel and hydropower

Biofuel energy, believed to be less polluting than fossil fuels, is also becoming a critical factor affecting water sources. Biofuel production has grown in the Asia Pacific since the year 2000, with China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand emerging as the leading regional producers.

The biofuel industry has large water requirements that could exceed capacity in some regions, the report stated, citing China as an example. The country aims to produce 12 million metric tonnes of biodiesel by 2020 – a target that would require an amount of water approximately equivalent to the annual discharge of the Yellow River, China’s second largest river after the Yangtze, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The report recommended biofuel production from agricultural by-products or biomass, or investments in algal fuel production could offer more opportunities for the region as cost for its production improves. It added that research and development led by Japan and Korea has resulted in its gaining ground as a sustainable alternative to biofuel.

Meanwhile, the report said hydroelectricity remains underexploited, meeting only 16 per cent of energy demand worldwide. The renewable energy source has strong potentials to expand in many parts of the region such as Bhutan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nepal, China, India and Thailand.

However, dam constructions pose a threat on biodiversity and to the livelihood of people situated close to the projects, causing conflict of interests between developers and the communities that are supposed to benefit from such projects, like in the cases of projects in the lower Mekong delta and the Indus-Brahmaputra river.

The report said prospects are better for small-scale hydropower projects particularly for countries with short, swift rivers as well as tributaries of big rivers that do not affect communities living downstream.

Recognising water recycling

The UN recognised water recycling as a possible key solution in the future and shared examples of wastewater projects that tap on rich source of methane from organic matter. This natural gas is used to run biogas plants and produce fuels for some countries such as in Chile, Sweden and Lesotho.

Separately, on the sidelines of the WWDR launch, NEWater, Singapore’s own brand of recycled water was awarded the ‘Water for Life’ United Nations Water (UN-Water) Best Practices Award 2014 under the “Best participatory, communication, awareness-raising and education practices” category.

As part of Singapore’s national water agency’s water sustainability programme, NEWater currently provides 30 per cent of Singapore’s daily water needs using reclaimed water produced from water treatment facilities. Used primarily for non-potable purposes at wafer fabrication parks, industrial estates and commercial buildings, a small amount is also blended with raw reservoir water before undergoing treatment at the waterworks for the water supply.

PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong, who received the award in Tokyo, stated: “Water recycling is not a new concept for water managers around the world. What distinguishes NEWater is the success that we have achieved in building public confidence for indirect potable use. This is part of an overall strategy that has the objective of changing the mindset of the population, stressing a new approach to water management by communicating to the public the need to look at water as a renewable resource that could be used over and over again.”

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