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Home Archive December 2010 Issue Issue Content Thirsty Energy, Scarce Water: Interdependent Security Challenges

Thirsty Energy, Scarce Water: Interdependent Security Challenges

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"Wars of the 21st century will be fought over water, " Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali 

“America’s national energy security strategy to reduce reliance on foreign fossil fuels depends upon building out unconventional and renewable domestic alternatives that are presently several orders of magnitude more water intensive than the conventional sources they are supplanting”
Steven Solomon, author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization  


From the invention of the waterwheel 2,000 years ago, to the modern, coal-burning steam engine that powered the 18th century Industrial Revolution, and the giant, multipurpose hydropower-irrigation-flood control dams pioneered at Hoover that helped transform 20th century global civilization, water and energy have been coupled in a matrimony of ever-deepening interdependence. Today their marriage interweaves so inextricably through the spinal nexus of 21st century infrastructures that achieving energy security depends critically upon freshwater sufficiency—and water security turns upon ample, and increasing amounts, of affordable energy.


Freshwater, however, is in increasingly short supply around the world. The dawning era of global freshwater scarcity is threatening the ability of more and more nations, including the US, to produce the energy needed for economic growth and national security. As a result, energy and water can no longer be addressed as separate challenges. A new paradigm of resource planning and management must be devised that treats water and energy as inseparable, complementary components of a linked continuum, where policy choices in one realm alter options and outcomes in the other.

Pumping, conveying, and treating water is extremely energy intensive. Water is very heavy—8 1/3rd pounds per gallon, or 20% more than oil—and massive volumes are required to sustain modern society: to irrigate the crops that feed us, to manufacture industrial goods from semiconductors to steel, to mine raw materials from the earth, to maintain shipping watercourse flows, to provide domestic needs for drinking, hygiene and sanitation, as well as to meet society’s enormous energy needs. To give some idea of the magnitude-of-scale, each day every person living in an industrialized nation personally consumes about one thousand gallons—over 4 tons of water—embedded in the food we eat; a typical semiconductor plant uses as much water as a city of 50,000. While the thirteen-fold increase in energy use in the 20th century is often heralded as the signature, catalytic 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. As the global freshwater scarcity crisis mounts, the competition between sectors for limited, clean fresh water supplies is growing increasingly fierce--and not all vital uses can be fully satisfied.

Energy's water demand

The largest single water user in the industrialized world today is the energy industry. Prodigious amounts are needed to produce nearly every type of electricity and transport fuel across the energy value chain, including extraction of raw material, refining and processing resources into usable forms, delivery of power to consumers, hydroelectric generation, emissions scrubbing, and cooling thermoelectric and nuclear power plants. In the US half of all water withdrawals are for energy, above all for thermoelectric process cooling.

While water use for industry and agricultural irrigation in rich countries has tapered off since the 1980s, energy’s water thirst continues to soar unquenchably. America’s national energy security strategy to reduce reliance on foreign fossil fuels depends upon building out unconventional and renewable domestic alternatives that are presently several orders of magnitude more water intensive than the conventional sources they are supplanting. This potential water chokepoint has not been adequately factored into national projections or energy security analysis, in part because the end of the long era of cheap and abundant freshwater represents a conceptually new, fundamental change in our historical framework. Indeed, on current trajectories and foreseeable technologies, it is doubtful that relatively water-wealthy America (with 8% of the world’s freshwater and only 4% of its population) can meet the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration’s projected national energy needs for 2030. A March 2007 report from scientists at Sandia National Laboratories investigating the energy-water nexus warned: “(I)t may not be possible in many areas of the country to meet the country’s growing energy and water needs by following the current US path of largely managing water and energy separately while making small improvements in freshwater supply and small changes in energy and water-use efficiency.”

For many years, adding new fossil thermoelectric and nuclear power plants has been curtailed by insufficient river water flows for cooling. Once-through cooling systems suck in enormous volumes of cooling water, temporarily depleting river flows before returning the effluent to the ecosystem to be used for additional purposes downstream. Closed-loop re-circulating systems that came into widespread use in the 1980s reduced withdrawals by 95%. But they consume much more water through evaporation—effectively diminishing the absolute base water supply and its productive application for other human uses as it flows in and out of various water infrastructures towards the sea. That’s not a problem when there’s enough water. But in many places there is not. With US electricity demand set to grow by 50% by 2030, absolute surface water consumption for electricity production is projected to double, to a volume equal to that consumed daily by 50 million households. This is likely to further deplete distressed water ecosystems and worsen America’s shortages.

Much of the increased electricity demand is in fact concentrated in fast growing regions where water is already scarce and long-term availability trends are declining. In the US southwest, for instance, ongoing drought and man-made overdraws of the Colorado River have lowered Lake Mead levels to record lows, forcing the hydroelectricity generators at the Hoover Dam—an iconic symbol and pioneer of 20th century water abundance and cheap energy—to be trimmed by a third; if levels fall another 5%, the generators may have to be shut down altogether. The initial enthusiasm for the apparent panacea of solar thermoelectric for the sunny southwest promoted by the Obama Administration dimmed considerably when localities started to do the math on how much water the cooling process would siphon away from other vital uses; dry cooling using hot desert air is not yet an efficient alternative.

Water and transport fuels 

Water withdrawals and consumption are also likely to rise sharply for transport fuels. Producing a gallon of conventional gasoline uses a modest 2 gallons and consumes about 1 gallon of water. 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, meanwhile, almost all are roughly 3 to 5 times more water intensive and face various bottlenecks.

Take oil shale as an example. The continental US has up to triple the proven oil resources of Saudi Arabia that could provide substantial national energy security. Yet present mining methods consume 2 to 5 gallons of freshwater per gallon of refinery-ready oil. Most of the largest oil shale reserves are located in the water-constrained Rocky Mountain and northwest prairie states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and North Dakota. In oil shale-booming North Dakota, now America’s fourth largest oil producing state after Texas, Alaska, and California, caravans of 8,000 gallon tanker trucks haul 2 to 4 million gallons of water to each Bakken Shale well site, where it is mixed with chemicals and injected under high pressure to fracture rocks deep underground to release the oil. Wary farmers, ranchers, and state fishery officials are already putting pressure on state water officials to limit pumping from aquifers whose water tables are dropping sharply.

Oil converted from western Canadian tar sands and traveling underground through thousand mile long, high pressure pipelines is forecast to provide over a third of America’s imported oil by 2030, up from one-tenth today. Producing such oil from tar-sands requires triple the water of conventional oil, and creates waste ponds so toxic that companies try to frighten birds away from them. Pipeline ruptures have already leaked oil into Michigan rivers. The consequences could be catastrophic for America’s food security and national water resources should any similar leak occur in the proposed, controversial Alberta to Texas pipeline and contaminate the pristine, virtually non-replenishable Ogallala Aquifer that lies under the arid High Plains and whose pumped water converted the hardscrabble Dust Bowl into an irrigated cornucopia after World War II. Thirsty synthetic fuels, such as coal to liquid and reforming hydrogen from methane, likewise consume up to three times as much water as petroleum refining; even wind-powered hydrogen production by electrolysis requires significant water as a feedstock.

Water and shale-gas 

Another big potential energy security and world geopolitical game-changer is the production of unconventional gas from high pressure hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling of deep, gas-bearing shale. The domestic boom in US shale gas, which now accounts for two-fifths of the nation’s supply, has virtually halted the growing importation of liquefied natural gas. It has softened global gas prices and de-leveraged the rising geopolitical power of leading gas producers like Iran, Venezuela and Russia. It has also brightened prospects for slowing global warming since gas emits only half the amount of GHG emissions as coal. Yet hydro-fracking poses another water challenge: What happens to the large volumes of polluted water that have been injected deep underground? Worries that injected water may infiltrate groundwater drinking water supplies has impassioned opposition activists and triggered drilling suspensions in New York City’s reservoir watershed, for example. The jury is still out on how serious produced hydro-fracking groundwater pollution may become. Treatment and safe disposal of ‘produced’ water is a growing challenge in older conventional oil wells and other types of energy production as well.


Important renewable, clean energies, too, are often prohibitively water intensive. None is more so than irrigated corn ethanol. Ethanol blenders receive a tax credit of 45 cents per gallon, in total some $5 billion dollars a year for a 2010 production of over 11 billion gallons. This is projected to increase to over $6 billion dollars a year in 2014, in which production of 14 billion gallons is mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard created by Congress in 2005 and amended in 2007. Rain-fed corn ethanol’s water intensity is roughly 2 to 6 times greater than conventional oil; at over  1000 times more water-consuming, irrigated corn ethanol, a small but apparently fast-growing segment of the industry, is off the water intensity charts. Driven by $7.7 billion in government support in 2009, some two-fifths of the US corn crop today is being turned into ethanol, making the US the largest ethanol producer in the world ahead of Brazil’s sugar-based industry. To the extent that many corn ethanol growers are irrigating unsustainably in arid regions with groundwater pumped from depleting parts of the Ogallala Aquifer also foolishly squanders strategic national water resources. To be part of the long-term energy security solution, future generation of biofuels must migrate to feedstocks like biomass wastes or non-commodity crops such as switchgrass or algae grown mainly on marginal, rain-fed land without conventional irrigation.

Even the search for climate change adaptable energy technologies are likely to be water scarcity-constrained. Carbon capture and storage technologies that have been the objects of so much hope, for instance, increase water consumption by about 45% to 90% at coal-fired thermoelectric plants. The bottom line is that nearly all present alternative fuels, with the exception of wind and solar voltaic (which face obsolete grid and other bottleneck obstacles) rely upon significant increases in water use. A December 2006 Report to Congress from the Department of Energy, “Energy Demands on Water Resources”, calculated that to meet US energy needs by 2030 total US water consumption might have to increase 10% to 15%—and that such extra supply may not be available.

DOE and the US State Department

The 2006 DOE Report originated with federal national laboratory scientists who grew concerned a decade ago about potential interdependency bottlenecks in the water-energy nexus. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici took an interest, and Congress’ 2005 Energy Security Act funded and mandated the Report and a Roadmap of recommendations about what to do about it. The Report, drafted by federal scientists with leadership from Sandia Laboratories, was duly published in 2006. But the Roadmap, expected to be published in late 2007, wallowed in bureaucratic limbo. The DOE officials assigned responsibility for it ordered revision after revision, nearly two dozen in all; as of late 2010 the Roadmap has not been published.

Awareness of the potential chokepoints in the nexus between energy security and water scarcity has nevertheless continued to grow. At the Davos World Economic Forum in early 2010, a panel on energy security morphed into a discussion of water security. Davos leaders also received a two year report on the broader issues of global freshwater scarcity, including energy. A growing legion of corporate CEOs have expressed concern that water scarcity poses mounting operational threats throughout their transnational supply chains. More corporations are measuring their water footprints. A special study team at General Electric found ways to save millions of dollars specifically on energy by improving its water use efficiency.

Looking at the implications of global freshwater scarcity through the larger lens of US national security, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in March 2010 that America had upgraded global freshwater scarcity to a central US foreign policy concern. Top State Department officials recognize that freshwater is rapidly becoming one of society’s scarcest strategic critical resources, impacting US objectives on energy security, food security, health, gender equity, and basic economic development.

What's happening? 

What is happening, in a nutshell, is that under the duress of the voracious demand and current practices of our modern society that globally uses water at twice the rate of rapid population growth, there is simply not enough available, sustainable supply of freshwater in more and more parts of the world to meet the needs of our 6.7 billion, much less the 9 billion-plus in 2050. Available and sustainable means the finite fraction of 1% of the Earth’s water that renews through natural process of evaporation and precipitation to replenish the rivers, lakes, and shallow groundwater. This amount is tiny, but it has been sufficient for all mankind’s freshwater needs throughout history—until today.

To make up for shortages, societies are depleting water ecosystems to an unprecedented and perilous extent by withdrawing more water from rivers and lakes than can be environmentally sustained over the long run, and by pumping aquifers dry—often using subsidized electricity and diesel energy. Over 70 major rivers—including the Nile, Indus, Yellow, and Colorado—merely trickle through deltas that have shriveled up. Half the world’s wetlands are gone. Mountain glaciers from the Andes to the Himalayas are melting at rates never before seen, and will eventually dry up the source of mighty rivers and aquifers and threaten the stability of nations who depend upon them. Due to groundwater mining, water tables are plunging in the food belts of India, Pakistan, and Northern China, as well as in California’s Central Valley and the southern portions of the High Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer. And now, as the pumps reach bottom, water scarcity is turning into a full-blown crisis. As a result, for the first time in history, it is imperative that societies consciously allocate priority use for environmental flows to sustain the health of the ecosystems that are the wellsprings of all society’s uses of water.

'Haves and have-nots' 

Associated with this environmental crisis is a great political challenge. Due to divergent population pressures and the uneven natural distribution of global water resources, the world is being polarized into water Haves and Have-nots, posing myriad security challenges that intersect energy security in various ways. Freshwater scarcity is a key reason why 3.5 billion people are projected to be living in countries that will not be able to feed themselves by 2025. This will likely include Pakistan, India, and possibly China, and will aggravate food pressures throughout the demographic volcano of the Middle East, which already depends on imports for half its food. Food insecurity is a major reason why desert oil producers like Saudi Arabia are leading the global rush to lease cropland in Ethiopia, Sudan, Pakistan, and anywhere else with water and available arable land. Food is also known as “virtual water” since it reflects the huge water value embedded in it. Strategic alliances with key energy producing states will increasingly be influenced by who reliably supplies their daily bread.

A quarter century ago, former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali famously predicted that the “wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” While nations have thankfully so far found more reasons to cooperate than to go to war over water, the grave, looming danger today from water scarcity is from failing states. States that can’t produce enough food and energy are more prone to fail.

Growth in Iraq and Pakistan, two nations where the West has invested so much blood and treasure, is handicapped by chronic electric power blackouts. In Pakistan the chief blame lies in its government's failure to invest adequately in dam and storage infrastructure. Currently the country exploits only 15% of the its hydropower potential. The problem has become internationally explosive because the Indus tributaries on which Pakistan depends first flow through India—inflaming Pakistani paranoia that India’s construction of a score of new run-of-the-river hydropower dams to help alleviate its own electrical power shortages will sooner or later be deployed as a water weapon against it. In April 2009, US officials grew especially alarmed when Taliban fighters inside Pakistan came within 35 miles of the giant Tarbela dam, the pivotal linchpin of the nation’s energy and irrigation infrastructure. The first $1.5 billion tranche of the US’ Kerry-Lugar aid package for Pakistan was heavily weighted with hydropower and other water projects. Unfortunately the impact of the aid package was swamped by the destructive force of the extreme summer monsoon floods that overwhelmed Pakistan’s protective water infrastructures.

The chief problem in Iraq, by contrast, is that so much Euphrates River water is diverted upstream by Turkey and Syria that not enough reaches Iraq’s existing hydropower (and irrigation) infrastructure. Indeed, the three nations’ combined water projects are predicated upon drawing one and a half times the entire Euphrates’ annual flow—a physical impossibility. The ultimate fate of post-Sadaam Iraq and US nation-building will be influenced by how much water Turkey—whose control of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates and whose possession of other water sources makes it the Middle East’s new water superpower—decides to allow flow downstream.

The water-energy nexus is also in play on the Nile, where long impoverished upriver states, notably Ethiopia, which supplies 85% of the water that reaches Egypt’s Aswan Dam, are starting to acquire the wherewithal to build dams and storage to exploit some of the waters that have been consumed for millennia downriver by Egypt. Half a century ago Iraq was in Egypt’s position today, a downriver state that enjoyed the lion’s share of river water that flowed unimpeded through less developed upriver states. But history shows that when the means to control a river becomes available, political power tends to migrate upstream.

The dire need for energy is helping drive the renewed burst of large hydropower dam building around the world. The Chinese are financing and building projects throughout Africa, which has tapped but one-tenth of its hydropower potential. Driven by its unquenchable thirst for power to sustain its juggernaut growth and its goal of weaning itself off dirty coal energy, China is furiously building dams to raise exploitation of its national hydropower potential from one-third to 60% by 2020. Its best locations are in the Tibetan plateau, where almost all of Asia’s mightiest rivers originate. It is building giant dams on the Yangtze beyond Three Gorges, on the upper Mekong, on the upper Brahmaputra, and eyeing sites on the Salween. The dams in controversially-controlled Tibet will give China enormous geostrategic leverage over the energy, food, and quality of life of 1.5 billion south and southeast Asians downstream, where governments are increasingly developing these same rivers’ lower reaches.


It is frequently overlooked, however, that freshwater scarcity is one of China’s gravest potential economic vulnerabilities. The country has only one-fifth as much water per person as the US and scarcity so severe in its parched, yet fertile and coal resource rich north that in 2008 it was forced to abandon major coal liquefaction projects for lack of water. To try to avert the impending national water crisis, it is now building the largest water project on earth—a series of huge aqueducts that will transfer water from the wet south to its arid north, over mountains and under rivers, much of it pumped with prodigious expenditures of energy.

Central Asia 

Water and energy security also are colliding in the new Great Game in Central Asia, where mountainous, poor Tajikistan is the source of two-fifths of the region’s water. Its efforts to develop its hydropower potential, improve its energy security, and anchor its teetering political stability have been repeatedly frustrated by its aggressive downriver neighbor and rival, fossil fuel-rich Uzbekistan, which wants to ensure enough water flow to supply its expansive, though inefficiently-irrigated cotton crop and to maintain political leverage over Tajikistan to whom it sells natural gas. As in many parts of the world where water resources cross borders, cooperation on the energy-water nexus could yield positive sum benefits through sharing increased hydropower output and improved timing of irrigation flows. But without trust, water instead festers as a source of mutual suspicion and a hair trigger to possible conflict.

A new holistic paradigm 

No silver bullet technology that can unleash abundant, cheap, new freshwater supplies—such as sea water desalination or genetically-modified crops that grow with less water—is likely to arise in time and in scale to solve the global freshwater scarcity crisis. The hard path forward thus depends on implementing new governing paradigms that use existing water resources more productively and in ways that conserve sustainable ecosystems. Within the water sector, an embryonic new ‘holistic’ paradigm is becoming visible which conceives and tries to manage water as part of its total, integrated watershed environment, from natural sources to local human uses and final disposal. The interdependencies of the water-energy nexus are essential components that must be incorporated.

Despite regional water constraints, many industrialized nations are, overall, relative global ‘Water-Haves’. Indeed, its relative water resource wealth in the dawning era of freshwater scarcity gives the US and others a significant international comparative advantage in the competition for economic power and strategic leadership in the 21st century. Those nations that make the necessary paradigm shift, including managing water and energy resources in a complementary manner, have a golden opportunity to attain energy security and to produce much of the water and energy intensive food and goods that will be in rising demand in an increasingly thirsty and underpowered world—and in the process boost domestic economic growth, international influence, and leverage to achieve strategic objectives like energy security.

While increasing effective water supplies is a necessary condition for attaining energy security, alleviating water scarcity itself depends upon mobilizing more energy. Wastewater treatment and re-use to extend water supplies, a major trend today among cities and businesses, requires more energy. So does the water consumption-saving shift to micro-irrigation in agriculture, as well as the unsustainable practice of pumping from ever-deeper depths of depleting aquifers, and the piping of water long distances over mountains as California has done for decades and as China is starting to do now. Removing the ever-increasing types of pollutants to keep our drinking water clean also adds energy intensity. The largest single cost inhibitor to large-scale desalination today is its huge energy use—as desalination becomes viable, large increases in energy must power it.

The interdependencies between water and energy also offer many positive synergies that can help achieve both energy and water security. Wastewater treatment plants today often recover enough energy from heat and waste materials to power their operations and re-sell electricity back to the power grid. The produced water from conventional energy extraction is increasingly being recaptured and treated on site, and used in local operations rather than released into the environment or pumped at great energy cost to centralized wastewater facilities. In the future, produced water may become a significant source of expanded water supplies or a recharge for aquifers to sustain ecosystems. Co-location of water and energy facilities offers many productive possibilities, such as using nutrient-loaded urban or agricultural wastewater to grow algae or other biomass as feedstock for transportation fuels. And of course technology breakthroughs—such as the invention of economical solar or wind power for desalination plants now reliant on fossil fuels—can be major game-changers that improve both energy and water security.

There will be no one-size-fits-all optimum solution to the interdependent challenges of freshwater scarcity and energy security. Instead there will be a tool kit of many permutations that must be individually tailored to respond to the local mix of natural environment, available water and water resources, and competing needs for other human and ecosystem uses. Ultimately food security and climate  impacts, which with energy and water form a quartet of interlocked, Rubrik Cube-type policy trade-offs, will have to be integrated. There remain formidable governing barriers to overcome, not least the thicket of antiquated water rights and political subsidies that distort price signals from reflecting the true market value of providing water and returning it cleanly to nature.

There are some obvious starting steps. The US has not done a comprehensive assessment of its national water resources in over 30 years. Many places don’t even measure their groundwater tables or meter water usage. Water resource data and projected needs should be promptly integrated into the DOE’s Energy Information Administration.

But whatever the steps, the bottom line is clear: Achieving energy security in the 21st century’s age of freshwater scarcity requires that water and energy strategies be integrated and managed together.

Contributor Steven Solomon is the author of “WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization



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