Turning water utilities green, à la World Bank
Submitted on 13/04/2012 by Laurent Lambert, Oxford University Centre for the Environment,
Europaeum Research Director for 2012 Prague Workshop and for 2010 Paris Workshop
The World Bank published last year an interesting report entitled TURNING LATIN AMERICA’S WATER UTILITIES GREEN: LESSONS FROM SPAIN. For me, this was a highly controversial title for what it is.
The authors argue that Spain is“at the forefront of water management strategies that address both climate change and efficiency (…)(due to) the country’s first hand experience with climatic shifts.”
They explain Spain’s achievements by a combination of internal factors (“the severity of drought periods and the inadequateness of management approaches in the 1980’s and 1990’s resulted in rivers running dry and cities, in risk of evacuation, requiring emergency supply from water tankers”) and an external driver of change: “the European Union’s emphasis on responding to climate variability has also played an important role in spurring the development of institutional structures to facilitate adaptation and mitigation plans in Spain.”
Here is a brief summary of this World-Bank-recommended Spanish strategy to climate-resilience and green growth for water:
“In addition to responding to the potential effects of climate change, Spain’s water utilities have incorporated green growth strategies that emphasize energy efficiency and the nexus between water and energy. These strategies have enabled Spanish water utilities to reduce energy and water use in operations and green house gas emissions. (…)
“The Key strategies that Spanish water utilities have utilized in their responses to climate change include: (i) risk management plans; (ii) diversification of sources; (iii) water monitoring systems; (iii) advanced drainage plans; (iv) water conservation; (v) energy efficiency and green house gas reduction programs; (vi) self-sufficient energy production; and (vii) green growth city programs.
All these points would seem completely fine, except that one of these ways in which Spain is adapting to climate change requires our critical attention.
By “(ii) diversification of sources”, the authors refer to “employing a variety of methods including integrated use of surface and groundwater, water reuse and desalinization (sic) to guard against water shortages. (…) Since 1994, the Ministry of the Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs (MARM), has overseen the construction or expansion of 20 desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. (…).
I am far from being a radical environmentalist who blindly rejects seawater desalination. My doctoral thesis was actually on this topic and I do believe that desalination constitutes one of the key technical solutions to the 21st C. freshwater challenge, along with demand management, complete water reuse and increased infrastructure efficiency. But not mentioning desalination’s important energy cost and greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emissions while presenting it among techniques for “turning (…) water utilities green” is completely dishonest.
Spain has massively invested into this supply-oriented water solution, with 20 new or extended desalination plants in less than 20 years, but there is still no (significant) solar desalination plant in Spain, only projects under study. This means that water desalination there relies either directly on fossil fuels or on electricity generated by fossil fuels. This is a direct threat to the possibility for Spain to curb its GHGs emissions and prevent the worse scenario of climate change on its national water resources and well beyond.
Sydney Water has projected that a desalination plant that produces up to 500 Mega litres of water per day through reverse osmosis (Spain’s most used desalination technology) would require 906 Giga Watt hours (GWh) per year of electricity and would produce between 480,000 tonnes and 950,000 tonnes of GHGs per year, provided there is a reliable and effective energy grid and with a gas power station adjoining the desalination plant to recycle the generated heat. But in Latin America, where the Spanish model is supposed to be a source of inspiration, this could turn into an environmental nightmare.
A grid in a poor state of maintenance; coal (cheaper) or oil liquids (more available) being used instead of natural gas for power generation; without a power station adjacent to the desalination plant, the emissions of GHGs could be several times this amount. Last but not least, since Latin America is a region where several countries are well endowed with fossil fuels reserves (e.g. Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil), they may decide not to use the energy-efficient reverse osmosis technology that functions on electricity and thus also requires power generation infrastructures, but to chose instead the more polluting thermal technologies that are directly fuelled by locally-available hydrocarbons, as in the Persian Gulf for instance.
There is of course nothing green in this, and the World Bank should have pointed out this negative aspect of what is overall a water strategy well ahead of most other European and Mediterranean countries. Spain has indeed met several water efficiency targets and avoided or mitigated a number of climate risks. However, proposing a one-size-fits-all blueprint to turn the “water utilities green” on other continents disregarding the different settings and local specificities appears risky not only for the environment but also for the countries potentially depending on ill-advised water strategies to face climate change. More importantly, ‘omitting’ the environmental tradeoff of desalination (i.e. a sharp increase in GHGs emissions) can favor sub-optimal strategies vis à vis climate change and the green economy more generally. On this point our Bretton Woods institution would better meditate some lessons not from Spain, but from home, especially from Nobel Prize Laureate and former World Bank Chief economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said: ‘(m)y research on the economics of information showed that whenever information is imperfect (…) the reason that the invisible hand seems invisible is that it is not there’.