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Reports on growing demand for water and energy highlight urgency of co-ordinated policy approach

Headlines in recent years have heralded soaring increases in global demand for energy, so a report issued in March 2014 by the United Nations, finding that global demand for energy will rise by 50 per cent over the next 15 years, was not particularly surprising. The real news was the finding that global demand for fresh water in that same period will increase by 40 per cent. Of course, that growth in demand will not all come from the energy sector; it will also be driven by other water-intensive industries, as well as more frequent and widespread droughts, population growth and contamination of freshwater supplies, among other things. Nevertheless, the predicted rise in water and energy demand, taken together, indicate that the availability of an already scarce essential resource is sure to become a significant challenge for power producers and energy policymakers.

In the US, electric power generation, agriculture, industry and municipalities are by far the largest water consumers. According to the US Geological Survey, nationwide approximately 201,000 million gallons per day (mgd) of water are used in thermoelectric power generation (scrubbers on a single coal-fired plant may use up to 5mgd); 130,000mgd for agricultural uses (irrigation and livestock); 44,000mgd for public water supply; 18,000mgd for industrial uses; and about 4,000mgd for mining activities, including oil and gas extraction. All ‘mining’ activity nationwide — mineral, oil and gas extraction — accounts for approximately one per cent of total water withdrawals from surface and groundwater sources, although specific regional percentages will vary. At the same time, the water industry is highly energy intensive, so that an increase in demand for water necessarily increases demand for electricity, making the relationship somewhat circular.

Worldwide, the statistics are more alarming. In a 2012 special report on the water-energy nexus, the International Energy Agency found that water withdrawals worldwide for energy production are tremendous. Nearly 15 per cent of the world’s total freshwater withdrawals are for use in connection with energy production. As one observer noted, this means that the global energy sector withdraws water at a rate equal to the downstream flows of the Mississippi River. At the same time, 20 per cent of the world’s aquifers today are depleted…

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