Each year that World Water Day is celebrated, we get an opportunity to focus global attention on the importance of water and the need to ensure that this seriously imperilled resource is sustainably managed. This year’s World Water Day theme addresses the critical dependencies between water and energy usage, also known as the “water-energy nexus.”
One of the most urgent cross-cutting challenges facing the world today—which is intrinsically linked with the need for more energy— is water stress and scarcity. The energy sector relies heavily on the use and availability of water for many of its core processes. Water is required in the mining and transport of fuels, in their conversion to energy and in the cooling of power plants. On the other side of the equation, massive amounts of energy are also required to pump, treat and transport water to various consumers.
For Southeast Asia, a region challenged by the rising incidence of drought and water scarcity, the water-energy nexus should be a matter of grave concern to its policy and decision makers. As population and urbanization rates go up, overall demand for water will continue to increase. Demand patterns will likewise change as the industrial sector expands and increases its water uptake.
Energy consumption in Southeast Asia has been rising continuously during the last decade. Thermo-electric power plants are particularly thirsty, accounting for the majority of water use by the energy sector. Compared to gas-fired power plants, coal-fired power stations consume two times more water per unit of energy produced. In contrast, renewable energy systems like wind and solar PV consume minimal water and are considered as the most water-efficient forms of electricity production.
The implications of coal’s bigger water footprint are distressing, especially in the light of the World Resources Institute’s Global Coal Risk Assessment report, which states that more than 65,000 MW of new coal-fired power plants are being proposed across Southeast Asia.
Coal-fired power plants contribute to water stress at every stage of the coal lifecycle and beyond: from coal mining to the burning of fuel for electricity, to emissions and coal ash disposal.
Toxic contamination of fresh water bodies is also a serious problem associated with coal. For example, coal mining, considered to be a key driver for the Indonesian economy, has largely ignored the systematic despoliation and pollution of the country’s freshwater resources. Since much vegetation cover is lost in open-pit coal mines, the soil is less able to absorb and retain water leading to increased incidence of flooding, which with toxic mining run-off has contaminated nearby streams and rivers. Such is the case of the Mahakam River situated in the town of Samarinda, East Kalimantan.
In the Philippines, the country’s coal-fired power plants with a combined installed capacity of 4,900 MW are estimated to have a total freshwater withdrawal of more than 604 million liters of water per hour. Every hour, this amount of water can fill up 242 Olympic-sized swimming pools! (The computation is based on estimates from the United States National Energy Technological Laboratory for approximating freshwater needs for thermo-electric generation.) Moreover, the discarded water used to cool the power plant also carries with it much of the waste heat, disrupting marine or water ecosystems and affecting fisheries in its wake.
In Thailand, community testimonials abound relating to the severe water pollution caused by emissions coming from Mae Moh’s 2,625-MW coal behemoth. In fact, back in 2003, the State Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning Office found high levels of arsenic, chromium and manganese in almost all water sources within the vicinity of the plant. As a result, a Thai provincial court recently ordered the power plant operators to compensate villagers for crop damages caused by the coal facility. This compensation is a clear recognition of coal’s direct and deleterious effects on people’s lives.
Even more insidious, carbon emissions due to coal burning contribute to climate change and the spawning of extreme weather events, which include unusual and prolonged occurrences of drought. These effects are already widely felt and experienced in many parts of Southeast Asia. Recent reports indicate that the drought currently affecting parts of Southeast Asia may be worse than previous episodes especially in an anticipated El Nino year.
Southeast Asia can no longer afford to ignore nor sidestep the strong links between water and energy, and business-as-usual approaches being pursued by governments in the region regarding energy choices and water provision must be questioned. The fact that superior and alternative approaches exist, especially those anchored on the massive development and uptake of renewable energy – means that our choices need not be limited to those where water security is inevitably sacrificed at the altar of a carbon-intensive economy. We need real solutions that transcend such challenges and allow us to leap frog to a truly green, robust and resilient economic future.