Coal industry deepening global water crisis, says study


Picture courtesy: Greenpeace

The world’s coal power plants consume enough water to meet the most basic need of more than a billion people, but governments are failing to manage water sustainably by allowing the industry to tap into this resource without first conducting thorough evaluations of the consequences, a Greenpeace report said.

It said the whole lifecycle of coal-generated electricity has enormous impacts on freshwater systems, from mining and washing to combustion and combustion waste management.

“A 500 MW coal-fired power plant, using once through cooling, can withdraw enough water to suck dry an Olympic-sized swimming pool roughly every three minutes,” the study said.

 This study covers 1811 GW installed capacity of coal-fired power plants globally, and 1300 GW proposed capacity of coal-fired power plants, as at the end of 2013. This amounts to 8,359 installed coal-fired power plant units and 2,668 proposed units.

“Our calculations show that existing coal-fired power plants alone consume 19 billion m3 of freshwater per year globally. This means that annually the world’s 8,359 coal-fired power plant units consume enough water to meet the most basic needs of more than 1 billion people,” Greenpeace said, adding that if it added the water that the coal industry uses to mine hard coal and lignite, this number rises to 22.7 billion m3 of water per year, enough to meet the most basic water needs of 1.2 billion people.

The numbers also show that coal-fired power plants account for the majority of the water consumed by the coal sector (84 percent), while water consumption for mining hard coal and lignite account for the remaining 16 percent.

“Our research also discovered that the issue of over-withdrawal of water is already widespread and severe, meaning that, in many areas water is being used much faster than fresh water bodies can replenish naturally. Around a quarter of both the existing and proposed coal-fired power plant units are located in areas already experiencing over-withdrawal of water,” Greenpeace said.

It said globally, 44 percent of the existing coal-fired power plants are clustered in regions with high levels of water stress, which means that water usage is above the level generally associated with significant ecosystem impacts.

Despite this, a massive coal expansion is planned in these very same locations, with 45 percent of the proposed plants in areas of high water stress, which increases the risk of a severe water crisis of an unprecedented scale, the report added.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report 2015 identified water crises as the greatest risk that the world faces over the next 10 years in terms of potential impact, with political, business and civil society leaders agreeing that “water security is one of the most tangible and fastest-growing social, political and economic challenges faced today.”

Greenpeace said plans for further major increases in coal-fired power plant capacity around the world (almost 1300 GW proposed additional coal-fired capacity as at the end of 2013) could plunge many regions already suffering severe water stress into crisis and serious drought.

There is also the increasing risk of serious conflicts over already depleted water resources between agricultural, industrial and domestic users. This huge demand on water resources coupled with the importance of all these major sectors, could severely impact societies, the study said, adding that in some countries the water conflict could force policy makers to make very difficult choices regarding the balance of water availability for food production, power supply or water sources of major cities, as well as for maintaining environmental needs.



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