A set of studies based on three years of research concludes that by 2040, the need for drinking water and water for use in energy production will create dire shortages.
Conventional electricity generation is the largest source of water use in most countries. Water is used to cool power plants to keep them functional. Most power utilities don’t even record the amount of water they use.
“It’s a huge problem that the electricity sector do not even realize how much water they actually consume,” says Professor Benjamin Sovacool of Denmark’s Aarhus University, one of the institutions involved in the research. “And together with the fact that we do not have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon.”
The research, which included projections of the availability of water and the growth of the world’s population, found that by 2020, between 30 percent and 40 percent of the planet will no longer have direct access to clean drinking water. The problem could be made even worse if climate change accelerates, creating more heat and causing more water evaporation.
That means humankind must decide how water is used, Sovacool says. “Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don’t have enough water to do both,” he says.
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The researchers, also from the Vermont Law School and CNA Corporation in the US, a non-profit research institute in Arlington, Va., focused their studies on specific utilities and other energy suppliers in four countries: China, France, India and the United States. (Related Article: Water Wars: The Next Clash between India and China)
First, they identified each country’s energy needs, then factored in projections of water availability in each country and its population level as far as 2040. In all four cases, they discovered, there will not be enough water by then both to drink and to use at electricity-generating plants.
So how to prevent this conflict? The studies agreed on starting with the simplest solution: Alternative sources of electricity that don’t require massive amounts of water.
The recommendations are improving energy efficiency, conducting more research on alternative cooling mechanisms, logging water use at power plants, making massive investments in solar and wind energy, and abandoning fossil fuel facilities in all areas susceptible to water shortages.
This last proposal may be the most difficult to implement because parched areas now include half of Earth. But Sovacool says it would be worth the investment.
“If we keep doing business as usual, we are facing an insurmountable water shortage – even if water was free, because it’s not a matter of the price,” he says. “There will be no water by 2040 if we keep doing what we’re doing today. There’s no time to waste. We need to act now.”