Energy Use Sucking Up a Precious Resource

Jan 10th, 2012 | By | Category: Advocacy, Ecosystem Functions, Energy, Environment, Waste, Water

Brisbane times: If you enjoyed a cup of coffee this morning, it might interest you to know it took 140 litres of water to produce that cup. Such a simple but profound equation.

It is strange, strange, strange that when it comes to the most important subject on the planet, the basis of all life – water – governments, international agencies, economists, scientists and businesses have consistently underestimated the growth in global demand, and the growing stress on supply.

It’s the biggest story in the world, yet mostly what we talk about is money: debt, growth, superannuation, savings, stockmarkets, gross national product, housing prices, wages.

Australia’s future growth is predicated on the expectation that China and India will continue to emerge as economic behemoths. But the explosion in energy use on which Australia’s current boom is based is accelerating the water debt in both China and India.

The link between energy and water is rarely discussed, yet is of huge consequence. The problem was encapsulated in Steven Solomon’s book, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization (2010). He later updated the dilemma in the Journal of Energy Security:

”Pumping, conveying, and treating water is extremely energy-intensive. Water is very heavy – 20 per cent more than oil – and massive volumes are required to sustain modern society . . . each day every person living in an industrialised nation personally consumes about [US]1000 gallons [3785 litres] embedded in the food we eat . . . ”

Think of that cup of coffee and its 140 litres. Or a single steak, which requires almost 10,000 litres of water to produce.

Solomon continues: ”While the 13-fold increase in energy use in the 20th century is often heralded as the signature factor in the unprecedented prosperity of a world population that has quadrupled to over 6 billion, it has been accompanied and also leveraged by a nine-fold increase in freshwater use . . .

”The largest single water user in the industrialised world is the energy industry. Prodigious amounts are needed to produce nearly every type of electricity and transport fuel across the energy value chain . . .

”But scaling up alternative technologies on a sustainable, massive level faces serious water scarcity hurdles. Getting additional oil out of existing wells through enhanced oil recovery techniques uses 15 to 1000 times more water. Potentially game-changing new coal, gas, and oil shale-based unconventional fuels that are shaking up world oil and gas markets are almost all roughly three to five times more water intensive . . . ”

It may seem counter-intuitive to be discussing water shortages in Australia after two of the wettest years in a century. The dams are high, Queensland and Victoria have had record floods, even the desert inland is awash. Last year was the third-wettest since we began keeping national records in 1900, following the second-wettest year on record. Both years were dominated by La Nina.

It was too much of a good thing. For the previous 10 years Australia suffered a long dry. The soil lost moisture. Thousands of hectares were also cleared for wheat and cotton. For soil conservation, the worst possible event with so much dry topsoil was for a sustained period of torrential rain. The erosion would be fearsome. That is exactly what happened. Today the land looks healthy, but thousands of square kilometres have seen topsoil eroded. We reached peak soil in eastern Australia a long time ago. The slow exhaustion of the soil has been hidden by the use of fertilisers. That is why the major food basket of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin, is officially listed as ”at risk” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

All this made Australia vulnerable even before the onset of the mega-weather patterns that have taken such a toll over the past year, a combination of La Nina and the hottest decade in history, plus the clearing of land by farmers, which increased temperatures on the land.

Last year, Australia and New Zealand accounted for more than a third of the world’s natural disaster insurance costs, with more than $20 billion in losses from the Queensland floods, the earthquake in Christchurch and cyclone Yasi in northern Australia.

Insurance Australia Group, which owns NRMA, among other brands, predicts that floods, fires, heatwaves and drought will grow more extreme and Australia will be one of the countries most affected by climate change.

Our great emerging trading partners, China and India, will be no better off, because of water stress.

China’s groundwater reserves are already over-exploited, and water tables are dropping. China has a strategic water shortfall. It has almost four times the population of the United States but only the equivalent of one-third of America’s water resources.

India is worse off. It depends on the monsoons and flows from the Himalayan glaciers, which are retreating. India must sustain 20 per cent of the world’s population with just 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater. The strain is showing. In 1980, there were 2 million wells in India. Today there are 23 million. If wells are dug too deep, saltwater seeps into the aquifer causing irreparable damage. This is happening.

The Ganges is polluted and threatened by the loss of flow from the Himalayan glaciers. Water volume on the Indus – a river crucial to both India and Pakistan – is down 30 per cent.

As India’s middle-class grows rapidly, its food and energy consumption leads to soaring water consumption. Something will have to give. Wealth or water.

The world’s growing freshwater stress makes the debt crisis in Europe look trivial by comparison, yet it barely rates consideration.

Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/politics/energy-use-sucking-up-a-precious-resource-20120108-1pq0i.html#ixzz1j2Ck4YAQ

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