About 40 percent of the world’s food depends on irrigation, which draws largely from stores of underground water, called aquifers, which make up 30 percent of the world’s freshwater. Unfortunately, groundwater is being rapidly depleted worldwide. In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the world’s largest underground bodies of water—spans eight states in the High Plains and supplies almost one third of the groundwater used for irrigation in the entire country. Scientists warn that within the next thirty years, over one-third of the southern High Plains region will be unable to support irrigation. If today’s trends continue, about 70 percent of the Ogallala groundwater in the state of Kansas could be depleted by the year 2060. (See further down for thermal electricity plants adding to water stress in arid areas)
Worldwide, soil is eroding at a rate ten to forty times faster than it is being formed. To put this in visual terms, each year, enough soil is washed and blown from fields globally to fill roughly four pickup trucks for every human being on earth.
The industrial model of farming is not a viable path to meeting humanity’s food needs for yet another reason: it contributes nearly 20 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector (transportation is higher in the US, with our big vehicles and all the driving). Our food system also increasingly involves transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration, storage, wholesale and retail operations, and waste management—all of which emit greenhouses gases. Accounting for these impacts, the total food system’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, from land to landfill, could be as high as 29 percent, and it is growing rapidly.
The seed market, for example, has moved from a competitive arena of small, family-owned firms to an oligopoly in which just three companies—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—control over half of the global proprietary seed market. Worldwide, from 1996 to 2008, a handful of corporations absorbed more than two hundred smaller independent companies, driving the price of seeds and other inputs higher to the point where their costs for poor farmers in southern India now make up almost half of production costs.
Most people point to sociopolitical dynamics and economics as the reasons behind humanitarian crises, but water stress is often another underlying and underreported trigger. Drought preceded Syria’s civil war. The drying up of Lake Chad led to the displacement of more than 2 million people. Without interventions, the situation is poised to worsen: Projections show that 33 countries will face extremely high water stress by 2040.
At the same time, the world is making major progress in monitoring the world’s water. Can early warnings prevent future conflict?
The UN Security Council may take up a climate resolution later this year, which would formally recognize water scarcity’s role in conflict prevention. Emerging platforms like the Aqueduct mapping tool can provide data to support better resource management: It evaluates current and future water stress, and will soon analyze water availability’s potential impact on staple crops in every region of the world.
6) Ocean Rising
Half the world’s corals have been lost to bleaching; nearly 60 percent of fisheries have been fished to capacity; and experts predict the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050. “This is a tragedy of the commons writ large,” Steer said.
Oceans are rising — literally, in terms of sea levels — and also on political agendas. Will it be enough to save the seas?
Forty countries have already banned or restricted the use of plastic bags that often end up in the water. Last year, the UN appointed a Special Envoy for Oceans, while countries made 1,400 commitments to ocean protection at the UN Ocean Conference.
This year, Canada has promised to put oceans on the agenda for the upcoming G7 meeting. We will see new initiatives introduced to improve ocean management at theWorld Economic Forum later this month. And negotiations may begin for a UN Treaty on the High Seas. Research shows that world needs to bring 30 percent of the world’s oceans under protection in order to achieve sustainability. Political and business leaders would do well to pay attention—key ocean assets are worth a whopping $24 trillion.
Jan 2018, WRI
40% of India’s Thermal Power Plants Are in Water-Scarce Areas, Threatening Shutdowns
Water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power.
New WRI research finds that 40 percent of the country’s thermal power plants are located in areas facing high water stress, a problem since these plants use water for cooling. Scarce water is already hampering electricity generation in these regions—14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages between 2013-2016, costing the companies $1.4 billion.
It’s an issue that’s only poised to worsen unless the country takes action—70 percent of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030 thanks to climate change and increased demands from other sectors.
Billions of Tons of Freshwater, Consumed
Thermal power—power that relies on fuels like coal, natural gas and nuclear energy—provides India with 83 percent of its total electricity. While these power plants fail to disclose how much water they’re using in their operations, WRI developed a new methodology using satellite images and other data to calculate their water use.
Much of the water withdrawn by plants is returned to the lakes and ponds from which it came, but a lot is also consumed, and not returned to its original source. We found that almost 90 percent of India’s thermal power generation depends on freshwater for cooling, and the industry is only growing thirstier. Thanks to increased energy demand and the growing popularity of freshwater-recirculating plants, which consume the most water of any thermal plant, freshwater consumption from Indian thermal utilities grew by 43 percent from 2011-2016, from 1.5 to 2.1 billion cubic meters a year.
To put this in perspective, India’s total domestic water consumption in 2010 was about 7.5 billion cubic meters, according to the Aqueduct Global Water Risk Atlas. That means power plants drank about 20 percent as much water as India’s 1.3 billion citizens use for washing dishes, bathing, drinking and more.
40 Percent of Thirsty Plants Are in Water-Stressed Areas
More than a third of India’s freshwater-dependent plants are located in areas of high or extremely high water stress. These plants have, on average, a 21 percent lower utilization rate than their counterparts located in low or medium water-stress regions—lack of water simply prevents them from running at full capacity. Even when controlling the comparison analysis by unit age, fuel type and plant capacity, the observation was always the same: Plants in low- and medium-stress areas are more able to realize their power output potential than those in high water-stress areas.
Scarce Water Dries Up Revenue
There are practical and financial implications of power plants’ thirst. Between 2013 and 2016, India’s thermal plants failed to meet their daily electricity generation targets 61 percent of the time due to forced power plant outages. The reasons ranged from equipment failure to fuel shortages. Water shortages were the fifth-largest reason for all forced outages—the largest environmental reason.
In 2016 alone, water shortages cost India about 14 terawatt-hours of potential thermal power generation, canceling out more than 20 percent of the growth in the country’s total electricity generation from 2015.
The Way Forward
As India develops, water competition will continue to grow and climate change will likely disrupt predictable water supply. Thermal utilities will become even more vulnerable to water shortages, power outages and lost revenue.
But there’s a better path forward: Upgrading cooling systems, improving plant efficiency, and ultimately shifting toward water-free renewables like solar photovoltaics and wind can all curb water risks to power generation.
It’s worth noting that the government of India already has plans in place that give reason for hope, such as the notification on power plant water withdrawal limitsand the “40/60” renewable energy development plan. If these ambitious policies are enacted and enforced, our estimates show that India will save 12.4 billion cubic meters of freshwater from being withdrawn by power plants. That’s a year’s worth of showers for 120 million people – more than live in the Philippines.
But change won’t happen overnight. Even with proactive policies in place, the key lies in their implementation. In the coming years, the Indian government, utility companies and international investors all have a role to play in making the power sector more resilient to water risks.
- LEARN MORE: Read the full paper, Parched Power: Water Demands, Risks and Opportunities for India’s Power Plants