The global water crisis – The elephant in the room

Why are so few talking about coal’s impact on already scarce water resources?

Despite the global water crisis being identified as the top risk to people across the globe, very few are taking a stand to protect dwindling water resources from the huge planned global growth of coal-fired power stations.

Although, water and energy are two hotly debated topics in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals discussions, no one seems to be joining up the dots by linking these two critical issues. The fact is that the planned coal expansion will contribute to water crises, as the energy sector usually wins against us when it comes to who gets access to this precious resource

Water risk is connected to two other big risks: failure to adapt to climate change and the food crisis. The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report has also reclassified it from an environmental risk to a societal risk, recognising the urgency to tackle water scarcity on various fronts. For people’s wellbeing.

Despite the looming water scarcity crisis, there are plans for more than 1350 new coal plants expected to go online by 2025. Much of the proposed coal expansion is in already water stressed regions – regions that already have limited available water for sanitation, health and livelihoods.

Climate Scientists made it blatantly clear again in January 2015 that we need to keep more than 80 percent of current coal reserves in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change. So, besides coal being the largest threat to our climate – building 1350 proposed coal plants will make the 2 degree limit impossible – if the current expansion goes ahead, our scarce water resources will be diverted away from agriculture and domestic use to be used instead to burn coal and drive even more dangerous climate change. What’s more important? electricity to power an ever more imbalanced global economy or billions of people having enough food and water to sustain themselves?

With energy, we have lots of options to choose from. With water, we don’t.

You know why renewables like wind and solar PV don’t need water? We don’t use fuel. We don’t wash fuel. We don’t burn fuels. No need to use water for cooling. No need to use water to wash away the ash. No toxic wastewater to manage.

In addition to water savings, renewable energy also cuts CO2 – two benefits for the price of one. Voila!

Water Use by Power plants Infographic

THIRSTY COAL SLIDESHOW

THIS SLIDESHOW ILLUSTRATES WATER USE AND IMPACTS AT DIFFERENT STAGES OF THE COAL LIFECYCLE
Water is used to extract and to wash coal. In power plants, water is used in three main processes: cooling, pollution control and waste management.

Image Gallery.. 

These conflicts are unfolding on an unprecedented scale but are avoidable.

With energy, we have lots of options to choose from. With water, we don’t.

You know why renewables like wind and solar PV don’t need water? We don’t use fuel. We don’t wash fuel. We don’t burn fuel. No need to use water for cooling. No need to use water to wash away the ash. No toxic wastewater to manage.

Tweet your thoughts about why Coal is the enemy of water, rather than an ‘Inseparable Friend’

  

Thirsty coal impacts on people – The Facts

  • Let’s try to put coal’s water use in human terms: the World Health Organization (WHO) says that between 50 to 100 litres of water is needed per person per day for the most basic needs. That’s 36.5 cubic meters per person per year. Coal plants globally consume 37 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water, according to a 2012 study by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Thus, globally coal plants consume as much water as the basic needs of 1 billion people.
  • 1.2 billion people, or almost one-third of the world’s population, now live in countries with physical water scarcity (water resources development is approaching or has exceeded sustainable limits).
  • South Africa, a water-stressed country with a water availability of only 973m3 of water per capita, is over 90 percent dependent on coal for electricity generation. Eskom, South Africa’s main energy company, consumes the same amount of water in one second to run its power plants as one person uses in a year. As a result, some local residents are forced to buy bottled water, because no clean drinking water is available.
  • India, with the second biggest proposed coal plant fleet in the world, is already a water-stressed nation, with an alarming 3.5 percent of the world’s water resources to support 1.2 billion lives.
  • India’s coal plants will consume water that can irrigate at least one million hectares of farmland. Over the last decade, 40,000 farmers have committed suicide in the state of Maharashtra due to lack of water for irrigation.
  • For China, the biggest proposed coal plant fleet in the world, has an alarming 5 percent of the world’s water resources for 1.3 billion people.

Billions of cubic litres of water is used at each stage of the coal lifecycle. Water is used to extract and to wash coal, and in power plants, water is used in three main processes: cooling, pollution control and for managing coal ash.

Every 3.5 minutes a typical coal-fired power plant withdraws enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Coal’s massive water grab will tip the water crisis over the edge, but it can be averted by
fast-tracking clean, abundant renewable energy resources, just look at the difference it would make, not just for our climate, but also to our water usage for power generation.

Iris Cheng is a Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace International

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