March 22 was World Water Day and the theme for 2014 is Water and
Energy. Water and energy can be perceived as almost synonymous. Water is
required to generate energy and water is also a major draw on energy. The fifth
edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR 2014)
reiterates the point that water and energy are closely interconnected and highly
interdependent. Choices made and actions taken in one domain can greatly affect
the other, positively or negatively. Trade-offs need to be managed to limit
negative impacts and foster opportunities for synergy.
Approximately 8 percent of global energy generation is used for pumping,
treating and transporting water. Both water and energy are also fundamental to
agriculture. With growing populations and decreasing supplies, we are headed
towards water shortages that will have truly global impacts. By 2015, energy
demand is expected to increase by 35 percent and water consumption by the energy
sector will increase by 85 percent. These issues will be further compounded by
of climate change.
As pointed out by the UN, there are massive inequities in terms of the water
energy nexus. While some waste vast quantities of water and energy, there are
780 million people who lack access to potable water, and over 1.3 billion people
lack access to electricity. A total of 2.7 billion people are affected by water
scarcity for at least one month each year.
Sustainable management of water resources is critical to the long-term health
of the population, the economy, and the environment. Over the last decade, water
has become a key concern of governments and businesses.
Americans do not know very much about water use, let alone the best
strategies to conserve water. This view was born out in a national online survey
titled, Perceptions of
Water Use by author Shahzeen Attari, of Indiana University
Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. According to the
survey, the majority of people claimed that the best way to save water was to
take shorter showers. However, the best strategy for conserving water is to
focus on efficiency improvements such as replacing toilets and retrofitting
washing machines. The study suggests that the average American consumes twice as
much water as they think they do.
People also had no idea about how water intensive food production is. Many of
the foods that are staples of the western diet are heavily dependent on
inordinate amounts of water. For example, 1 kilo of wheat uses 1,500 litres of
water, while producing 1 kilo of beef consumes 15,000 litres of water.
While public education is crucial, it will be years before people apprehend
and change their lifestyles to responsibly address water scarcity. The woeful
state of the general public’s awareness about water issues increases the onus on
governments and businesses. Unlike the general public, governments and
businesses are being forced to address water issues.
Water stewardships steps: a guide for business
The WWF has developed the water stewardships steps approach to help guide
companies. Their guidance involves 5 interdependent steps.
- Water Awareness: This step reviews how water impacts
business and how business impacts water. Water awareness can also help companies
to ‘sell’ the water story within and highlight how a company is perceived by
others. It can also address associated risks that influence strategy and
- Knowledge of Impact: This concerns a company’s water
footprint, both direct (company operations) and indirect (supply chain). This
involves measurement, impact assessment and the wider context of global issues
associated with water. Hot-spot and risk analysis can help drive the
understanding of these impacts.
- Internal Action: This involves strategic prioritization
including outlining goals, targets, actions, and plans that will help tackle the
more immediate solutions to the problem. It incorporates crucial activities like
company targets to reduce baseline water use; launch of water efficiency pilot
projects; engagement with employees, consumers and marketing to address
opportunities and risks; improvement of water quantity and quality reporting;
and pollution prevention. Other dimensions of internal action may include
beginning the process of engaging suppliers, and assessments on how to take
action to realize supply chain improvements through alternative sourcing,
product innovation, or improved management of water in the production of raw
- Stakeholder engagement: This is about working with others.
This translates to engagement with stakeholders (other companies, NGOs, sector
initiatives, public agencies, and standard-setting bodies) to help mitigate
basin-related risks, boost reputation on water issues, and build brand trust and
- Influence governance: Here we are talking about actions
ranging from advocacy, influencing or lobbying, partnership, financial support,
facilitation, institutional strengthening etc. The opportunities through
engagement can mean significant risk reduction, enhanced social and legal
license to operate and clearer and consistent laws and regulations that govern
company water use.
Water footprint standard
In light of the looming water crisis, there is growing interest in efforts to
manage water use in manufacturing. One iniative designed to address the crisis
is known as “water
footprint,” defined as “the volume of freshwater appropriated to
produce the product, taking into account the volumes of water consumed and
polluted in the different steps of the supply chain.” The Global Water Footprint Standard is an important step toward
solving the world’s ever increasing water problems.
Thirsty energy: a guide for governments
To support political decision makers’ efforts to proactively address
challenges in energy and water management, the World Bank has embarked on a
global initiative called thirsty energy which quantifies the tradeoffs and
identifies “synergies” between water and energy resource management. Thirsty
Energy tailors approaches depending on the available resources, modeling
experience, and institutional and political realities of a country. To assist
with the project, a Private Sector Reference Group (PSRG) has been established
to share experience, to provide technical and policy advice, and to scale-up
outreach efforts. Thirsty Energy also provides the tools and technical
solutions required to assess the economic, environmental and social implications
of water constraints in energy and power expansion plans.
Hope for the future
We will be seeing more focus on water in the coming years. The UN’s
Sustainable Development Goals are going to replace the Millennium Development
Goals and this will likely increase the focus on accessible water and energy
services around the world.
While we may be facing unprecedented global water shortages there have also
been some new developments that give us reason to hope. One of the most
promising finds is the recent discovery of massive caches of water. As reported
in the Journal Nature, late last year, scientists discovered vast
aquifers of fresh water underneath the sea floor.According to the report,
nearly 120,000 cubic miles of low-salinity water has been found beneath the
continents of South Africa, North America, Australia, and China.
A truly innovative and readily accessible source of water comes in the form
of new fog harvesting techniques. This method of capturing water
is commonly practiced by some plants and insects. New and improved technique for
harvesting water from fog comes from researchers at MIT, working in
collaboration with colleagues in Chile. According to the study published online
in the journal Langmuir, a publication of the American Chemical Society, MIT
researchers have developed a breakthrough in highly efficient fog harvesting.
According to Chilean investigators if just 4 percent of the water contained in
the fog could be captured it would meet the needs of some of the nation’s
most drought stricken areas.
In the Fall of 2013, the National Water Research Institute (NWRI) staged the
Clarke Prize Conference on sustainable water resources. The topics discussed
included energy, climate change, economics, membrane based water treatment,
stormwater treatment and municipal water treatment. The Conference also included
a number of water related innovations from leading edge academic researchers and
One of the highlights of the conference was a presentation by Pedro Alvarez,
Professor of Engineering at Rice University in Texas. Alvarez is a global leader
in enhancing water resource sustainability through water pollution control. His
presentation focused on microbial control through nanotechnology. Microorganisms
such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa are the leading cause of waterborne
disease worldwide. Research applying microbiology and nanotechnology has the
potential to develop greener disinfection and microbial control technologies for
safer, broadly accessible, and more affordable water supplies.
While renewable energy may not be a panacea, it is a crucial part of
sustainable solutions, including better water stewardship. Renewables are not
only emissions free, they also use far less water than fossil fuels. According
to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) titled, Water Smart Power, more than 40 percent of US freshwater
withdrawals are used for power plant cooling, and they lose several billion
gallons of freshwater every day through evaporation. The UCS report indicates
that the combination of renewables and energy efficiency could reduce power
plant water usage by 97 percent from current levels by 2050 and cut carbon
emissions by 90 percent from current levels.
The limited supply of water and energy must be understood alongside growing
demand. To manage both water and energy we need to acknowledge their fundamental
Water is the key to our survival and our hopes for prosperity, it is at the
heart of the challenges we face and central to sustainability.
Warming is Real
The 2014 World Water Development Report (fifth edition): Water and Energy
World Water Day 2014: Water and Energy
Infographic – The Water Energy Nexus
Infographic – Water and Energy (World Bank)
Recycling or Reclaiming Water: A Sustainable Solution for Industry
World Water Day 2014 Advocacy Guide
Water Stewardship Steps: Developing a Water Strategy
Solutions to Diminishing Ground Water
The Carbon Trust’s Water Standard
WBCSD Report: Building the Business case for Water Valuation