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World Water Day Focuses on Water Stressed Areas

By George Harvey, Staff

In 1993, the United Nations passed a resolution designating March 22 of each year as World Water Day. This year, the UN focused on the very close connection between water and energy, and its implications for the future, particularly its implications for impoverished people.

Parched Farm Field - Photo by Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Parched Farm Field – Photo by Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Problems relating to water are already very important, worldwide. Over 750 million people currently have no access to potable water. Two and a half billion people lack proper sanitation infrastructure. As bad as this is, the expectation is that it will get much worse.

The UN projection is that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will be living in areas it terms “water stressed.” This means that 40% of the people of the world will have problems because the water is insufficient or contaminated. People, animals, farms, the environment, and businesses will suffer as a result.

The focus on energy is important. Apart from the fact that fossil fuels are responsible for most of the problems we face because of climate change, thermal power plants are among the most important users of water. At the same time, water systems consume a large part of the energy produced, about 8% of the world supply.

When we think of water usage for energy, perhaps the first image to come to mind is hydropower reservoirs. This is by no means the largest part of the problem. Reservoirs trap water, but most of it is returned below the dam, allowing the river from that point to flow in a more-or-less natural manner. Provision of fish ladders and similar equipment lessens the impact.

By contrast, thermal power generation uses a lot of water. This is partly because of cooling systems that we see on the banks of rivers or along beaches. That is only a small part of the story, however, as production of fuel and handling waste both can cause problems. “Fracking” to extract natural gas uses a lot of water, much of which is contaminated. We have seen coal ash contaminate rivers and oil contaminate both land and sea. Radioactive material from Fukushima is spreading through large areas of the North Pacific.

At the same time, the amount of water needed by thermal plants is so great that drought, floods, excessive heat, and excessive cold are all threats to their operation. Nuclear power plants are not alone in facing this threat, but we have seen some of them shut down by floods, and others running at reduced power because the bodies of water that cooled them were too warm to be effective.

The answer to the problem of water and energy, according to the UN, is to adopt generating technologies that do not need large amounts of water. Most notable are solar and wind power, because they cause very few problems with water. With proper care, hydro, biomass, and geothermal can also be used.

The bottom line – which sounds so familiar because it is the bottom line for other problems as well – is that solar and wind power should be developed as much as possible.

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