How will global warming affect the water sector?

Suddenly, global warming is the hot topic of discussion in news channels, papers, magazines and even tabloids. Rising temperatures, melting glaciers and extreme events have become too obvious to be missed. What’s more, a film on global warming An Inconvenient Truth has won an Oscar this year. 

But how does the climate change affect the water sector? Some studies are ongoing regarding the impact of changing temperatures and precipitation on water resources, ecosystems and river flows. However, there appear to be few or none on the impacts of these on water utilities and their assets.

It is clear that the business of water treatment and supply as well as wastewater treatment is poised at the threshold of extraordinary challenges. Rising sea levels are about to cause permanent displacement of millions of people and even animals. Due to climatic shifts, rainfall patterns are changing. Drying up of water bodies is driving up the cost of water treatment. Sudden heavy downpours such as the one witnessed in Mumbai some years back are causing serious sewer overflows. Encroaching seas are contaminating freshwater supplies.

Reducing greenhouse emissions is not just the responsibility of power plants and other heavy-duty industries. Water utilities and municipalities have their part to play. Investments in innovative, clean technologies that lower costs and improve outputs in the long run would be an excellent safeguard against climate change. Continuing with obsolete power-guzzling equipment when new, energy-saving models are available is nothing short of callous.

In preparing for climate change, the role of modelling software is assuming a growing significance. Though modelling is a given when it comes to process industries such as petrochemicals and refining in Asia, there is a noticeable vacuum when it comes to water utilities. However, this indifferent state of affairs cannot continue for long.

After the torrential rains of Mumbai disrupted the city’s drainage, the city was forced to consider a disaster mitigation plan using modelling software. As climate turns more unpredictable, it will become imperative for cities to accurately map their pipelines and other assets, monitor them and prepare models in order to counter emergencies.

Flood modelling software can help operators to simulate various scenarios and take proactive steps. It will be possible to consider which streets will get flooded first, the manholes that will overflow first and plan the investments needed to prevent them. Wastewater software can be used to manage sewerage effectively.

Distribution software can allow engineers to model delivery systems and manage assets, including data for underground assets. Leakages can be dealt with and rehabilitation can be carried out systematically.

Over the years, users of modelling software are rising steadily in Asia as the benefits are becoming clearer. There is value-added in almost every sphere – capital cost savings, time savings, operational efficiency, safety and disaster preparedness.

 Even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped from today, the effects of the earlier emissions will continue for a long time. The need of the hour is a massive campaign to prepare for climate change. An inconvenient truth is becoming an inevitable truth.

4 thoughts on “How will global warming affect the water sector?

  1. In June 2007 the World Wide Fund for Nature has issued a report entitled “Desalination-option or distraction for a thirsty world”, which is littered with unsubstantiated claims regarding the role and future of this technology. One of these claims indicating that the desalination plants will have a significant contribution to global warming. Without providing any objective scientific facts to support this claim the report misses the simple fact that the electricity needed to produce water for an average family of four for one year is less than the energy used by the family’s refrigerator (i.e., around 2000 kW/yr). The claim that desalination can have a signficant effect on global warming is as flowed as claiming that refrigerating food for the last 60 years has caused global warming. The report, which was prepared in vacuum without the open review and input from the desalination community, uses a number of “pseudo-facts” about desalination in a similar manner a drunkard uses a lamp pole – for support not for enligthment – a fatal flow that greatly diminished report’s value and use.

    When I was reading the report I was thinking of what would have happened if there were no automobiles today and one of the titans of the industrial and technological revolution of the 20-th century, Henry Ford was trying to get all the necessary environmental permits in the US to build the first factory for affordable automobiles in our times – he would have not stand a chance – his vehicle would have been much more expensive, and “environmentally flawed” mode of transportation as compared to the horse carriage or the bike – higher “carbon footprint”, noise, traffic congestion, air pollution, energy use an order of magnitude higher than the bike, “unknown human health” implications, impingement and entrainment of insects and occasionally on birds and large terrestrial mammals on the radiators and on the front window causing a “drastic reduction” of insect an d avionic population and only God knows what other environmental calamities – all “good” reasons to kill a perfectly good idea such as the automobile. To paraphrase the words of the World Wide Fund – the automobile would have been an expensive, “premature” and unproven technology and we should have not even think about it for another century. Here it goes the automobile idea… and the lack of common sense.

  2. Nikolay, I agree that instead of opposing a technology that could help many countries out of their water crisis, it would be better to find ways how it can be improved. As it stands today, the number of desalination plants around the world is quite small, and I don’t think they are playing that big a role in global emissions. However energy consumption does form a big chunk of the cost of desalination.

    The desalination industry needs to look at cleaner/renewable sources of energy. I am told that the Perth desalination plant is powered entirely by renewable energy from the Emu Downs Wind Farm and the Sydney plant will also be powered from renewable sources. I hope many more such innovations are in the offing!

  3. The use of alternative sources of energy is a good idea for any industry, including desalination. However, the cost of power generation using wind farms is two to three times higher than other more conventional sources of energy supply – hydropower, power from fossil fuels, etc., and is one of the main reasons why the cost of production of desalinated water of the Perth project is approximately two times higher than that produced by the SingSpring Seawater RO project – artificially making this water source much more expensive and likely unafordable for less developed countries.

    Another very impotant point on renewable power is that it has a significant economy of scale – i.e., rather than having a separate wind-farm dedicated for a desal plant, the governments should think about developing a state-wide strategy to produce electricity from alternative power sources, thereby generating power more efficiently for all power uses, including desalination. The fact that desalination uses more electricity than most of the water supply sources does not make it a large power user in the context of the our everyday activities – such as food refrigeration, hope lights, etc., and should not be sigled out for this reason. Otherwise, why not require all refrigerators to run on windfarm power as well – they use more energy than that needed for production of desalinated water?

  4. I would think that the reason behind wind power being costlier than conventional sources is that the conventional sources of energy have been priced too low. If the conventional sources of energy are priced keeping in mind their environmental impact, would they not be far more costly? Looks like Australia has done just that.

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