Friday, March 21, 2014

Limitations of World Bank’s Thirsty Energy – Reflections on the Occasion of the World Water Day

World Water Day Focuses on Water Energy Nexus

22 March is world water day, and this year, the global theme for the day is Water and Energy. Global players are focussing on this theme, with UNESCO releasing on 21st March 2014, its latest World Water Development  Report 2014 with its central theme and title “Water And Energy” and the  International Energy Agency (IEA) making available free of charge a chapter titled “Water for Energy: Is energy becoming a thirstier resource?”from its two year old publication World Energy Outlook 2012.

Indeed, since last few years, much of the global water discourse has centred on the so-called “nexus”, that is, the Water-Energy-Food nexus. Continuing this focus, the theme of the World Water Day this year is “Water and Energy”.  

Well before today’s World Water Day, the World Bank has taken the lead in pushing this theme of Water and Energy through its initiative called Thirsty Energy. 

World Bank’s Initiative – Thirsty Energy

The initiative, with a theme of Securing Energy in a Water Constrained World, “aims to help governments prepare for an uncertain future, and break disciplinary silos that prevent cross-sectoral planning. With the energy sector as an entry point, thirsty energy quantifies tradeoffs and identi­fies synergies between water and energy resource management.”

However, there are serious limitations in the way the World Bank is looking at the Water Energy nexus. This is evident from a reading of its own working paper released in June 2013, of the same title, Thirsty Energy.
This document does highlight the large amounts of water needed to produce electricity, particularly coal-fired electricity, but it falls far short of understanding or revealing the full range of impacts of energy production on water. Let us look only at the example of coal fired electricity and water.

Coal and Water

The entire chain of coal based electricity production – from coal mining, transport, power plant and ash disposal – has huge impacts on water. These can be broadly categorised as follows.
(1)    Direct consumption of water for coal mining, thermal plants, ash disposal etc.
(2)    Disruption of both surface and ground water resources (e.g. coal mines will dewater groundwater aquifers around them, impacting local communities)
(3)    Pollution

Unfortunately, Thirsty Energy looks only at item (1) above, and completely ignores impacts of (2) and (3), which can be as big as or even worse than those of (1). 

Direct Use Underestimated

Even in the direct use of water, Thirsty Energy grossly underestimates the use of water by coal plants. It assumes that the biggest use of water in coal power plants is for cooling purposes. It says, “In a coal plant with cooling towers, it is estimated that 90 percent of the water is used in the cooling system and the other 10 percent is used in other processes (DOE, 2009)”. However, this is not true at all in the case of India. In India, in addition to water used for cooling – which is huge, massive quantities of water are used for ash disposal.

Ash Dump of HINDALCO Alumina Company at 
Hirakud, Sambalpur in Odisha.  Note Location Close to water body.

Ash pond of 2340 MW Chandrapur Thermal Power plant. 
The pond is spread over 2600 hectares. It is supposed 
to be lined with impermeable material, as are all ash ponds,
but is not.
Burning of coal leaves behind ash, which is particularly high in India as domestic coal is high in ash content. While ash is supposed to be reused (the various reuses are fraught with risks, an issue we are not dealing with here), vast quantities still are being disposed in the form of dry ash dumps (see photo), or in ash ponds in the form of slurry (see photo). The latter requires massive quantities of water. For example, data obtained by us (Manthan Adhyayan Kendra) under the Right to Information Act showed that in many thermal power plants, water used for ash disposal ranged from 25% to 40% of total water use, and on a per unit basis was between 0.7  to 2 litres per unit (KWh) of electricity generated. But water for this need, for ash disposal, does not figure anywhere in the estimations of Thirsty Energy.

It’s claimed that newer plants will use much lesser water for ash disposal, and any such development will be welcome. But there are serious questions about these claims which still need to be proved on the ground. Till then, ash disposal remains a huge water guzzler in India.

Disruption of surface and ground water resources
Coal mines, both open cast and underground, can severely disrupt the groundwater flows, aquifers and also impact surface water. When one digs a coal mine, in essence one is digging a big pit, which cuts across ground water flows. These can lead to drying up of wells and even surface water bodies in the vicinity.

Our visits to various mines in different states show that the impact of groundwater dewatering is felt up to distances of 4-5 km. A study by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) of the Padampur-Durgapur coal mines in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra noted that effect of mine dewatering was seen upto distances of 3 km.  (See Photo , dry well in Sinala village).

Dry well at village Sinala, near Padampur-Durgapur mine. 
Local people talked about how earlier this and other wells
used to supply water well past the monsoon, but now dry up soon after.

In quantitative terms, the above mentioned CGWB studies note a dewatering of 10.89 million cubic meters (MCM) per year for Kamthi-Inder-Gondegaon mine, and 7.76 MCM per year for Padampur-Durgapur mine. By rough estimates, this amount of water can irrigate 2200 ha and 1500 ha of land respectively. This is the water that is lost to the local communities. Some of this – mine drainage - could potentially be supplied back to the local communities – but this has the risk of being contaminated and would need treatment before returning back. The experience so far of pollution control and proper treatment of water is not at all encouraging in this matter.

It is not only groundwater, but also surface water bodies that are affected. (See photo). This entire aspect, which affects thousands of people from communities in vicinity of coal mines,  is overlooked by Thirsty Energy.

Dried surface pond near coal mines in Angul district in Odisha.  Local people told us that this pond used to supply water to irrigated fields of people till February, but now does not retain any water post monsoon. They link this to the mining activities. Coal mine EIAs mostly do not look at the impacts on surface water resources.

Coal and Pollution
There are many sources of pollution in the coal – electricity chain. For water, some of the important issues are the mine drainage, water pollution due to oil and grease and coal dust, contamination of ground and surface waters with ash, which has presence of heavy metals, overburden draining into water sources etc.
Lahiri Nallah in Lahiri Opencast mine area of
Mahanadi Coalfield in Jharsuguda, Odisha,
contaminated with grease and coal dust.
One of the serious pollutants is acid mine drainage which occurs when mine drainage interacts with sulphides, if any, present in the ore or rock.

The mine drainage, even if not acidic, has other pollutants, mainly in the form of suspended solids, and settling in a settling tank is projected as an adequate method of treating it. We are still studying this aspect. However, our field visits have shown that often mine drainage is discharged onto local water bodies without even this basic treatment.

Another serious source of pollution is the ash. The un-utilised ash is being dumped in fly-ash dumps or fly ash ponds from where risk of contaminating water is very high, through leaching, through spilling and through ash dyke breaches (not to mention illegal discharge of ash into nallahs and rivers). It may be mentioned that it is only in recent years that the authorities are taking some cognisance of the pollution from ash, and are calling for monitoring of heavy metal in ash and also presence of radio-active elements. However, ash continues to be dumped into, and contaminate land and water.

Thirsty Energyignores entirely this aspect of pollution of water, which is a significant part of the (coal) energy – water nexus, and on occasions could be even more of a threat than the large quantities of water which are consumptively used.

Limited Understanding Limits Solutions

Thus Thirsty Energy  reveals a very limited understanding of the  impacts of (coal based) energy production on water. This in turn affects the solutions it offers. It is no surprise then that the solutions presented by Thirsty Energy are mainly technical and managerial in nature – more efficient water use, air cooling, integrated energy-water modelling etc. While all these are important, one critical element that is missing is the participation of local communities – who are the most impacted by the water-energy nexus – in planning, monitoring and regulating the impacts of energy on water.

22 March 2014
Manthan Adhyayan Kendra

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece Shripad. Well researched thorough examination of the wide range of impacts coal has on water. We desperately need to include these impacts in our analyses as the world considers a dramatic expansion in coal fired electricity. If we don't well see harsh tradeoffs between agricultural/household and industrial needs. Something no one wants to see...