Writer: François Guerber

Increasing the efficiency of water and energy use is of key importance in the Mediterranean region, as demand for both grows and the impact of climate change becomes more visible.

Water and energy have always been inextricably linked, whether in domestic use, agriculture and irrigation, or in urban centers where energy consumption is considerable. Today, we face the challenge of improving water management and reducing energy consumption to make our cities more sustainable. Energy production is also a highly water-intensive activity, where more efficient methods need to be explored. The relationship between water and energy is particularly relevant in the arid Mediterranean region.

Reinforcing links between water and energy

Water is a natural source of energy of particular importance because it is mobilized during peak hours. On the other hand, all water use requires energy:

• Irrigated agriculture is the main water consumer in the Mediterranean region, using 180 km3/year or approximately 6 million one-liter bottles of water per second. However, energy requirements are also high, as water needs to be transported to the fields and spread over large areas.

• Industrial production requires cooling, consuming significant amounts of water, particularly in the energy production industries, which consume 38 km3/year in the Mediterranean region.

• Urban water supply and sewage: domestic needs and economic activities connected to the public water networks consume 38 km3/year in the Mediterranean region.

• Industrial production: activities such as paper manufacturing and types of food production (breweries, sugar plants e.g.) consume more water than others.

• Hydropower production: significant amounts of water are derived from the river towards turbines, either within the river on the dam site or further removed in channels or pressure mains. Hydropower can in certain instances have far-reaching effects on aquatic life and river morphology, forcing authorities to impose a limit to electricity production.

The connection between water and energy activities has developed congruently, creating a deep interdependence.

Water consumption is increasing, creating pressure on water resources and leading to ever-higher energy consumption. Water and energy consumption are increasing proportionally as population increases and living standards rise. Moreover, climate change will lead to an increase in water demand during the summer season when water resources will be at their lowest. These two factors lead to the overexploitation of water resources, but also to an increase in energy consumption as water needs to be brought from further away (deeper in the aquifers or from more distant surface water sources or reservoirs) or treated more intensively (desalination e.g.). Plan Bleu, UNEP’s regional center, has shown that demand for water (domestic, industrial and irrigation only) in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries will rise from 150 km3/year in 2005 to 200 km3/year in 2025, while demand for electricity for the same water uses and the same geographical area will rise from 20 TWh/year in 2005 to 200 TWh/year in 2025.

Traditional sources of energy are getting scarcer. As the impact of climate change becomes evident and efforts are made to minimize greenhouse effects, the nature of energy production will fundamentally change. Energy produced from fossil sources like coal and oil will decrease, while renewable and nuclear energy will develop considerably in the future. The former consumes very little water, but the latter consumes significant amounts of water for cooling. The overall result is definitely increased energy costs.

Future water-energy scenarios in the Mediterranean are worrying. The future is uncertain because energy price hypotheses vary widely and because the impact of climate change on water resources is not yet known locally. The “underlying rate” scenario – no changes in water and energy policies – leads to a global deadlock and consequently to catastrophic situations in some parts of the Mediterranean region. Thus, there is no other choice than an “adaptation” scenario – anticipation and proactive actions in both the water and energy sectors – as a collective duty at regional, national and local levels.

The following actions could help confront the water-energy challenge:

1) Define and respect the water needs of aquatic bodies: The EU Water Framework Directive specifies volumes for environmental needs (minimum water flows even if they reduce hydroelectric production), in addition to the requirements of different sectors. Lessons learned show that such environmental water volumes are a profitable priority rather than a money-losing constraint, reducing investment costs for new water infrastructures as well as helping climate change adaptation.

2) Implement and apply Integrated Water Resources Management planning, including the right compromise with other public policies: such plans exist in almost every country but have to be negotiated so as to be coherent with other public policies such as renewable energy, agriculture, housing and land use. For example, in France the apparent contradictions between the two European directives (water framework and renewable energy) were circumvented through a 2010 agreement between the hydroelectricity producers and the state administration.

3) Anticipate and adapt to climate change: actions that will help adapt to climate change must be conceived globally, then introduced in all existing public policies mentioned above in 2) regardless of future water resources or energy costs.

4) Review investment decisions within the future energy context and prices: water users will have more and more self-interest in monitoring their energy costs in order to reduce the bill. Most municipalities and water services regularly update their energy contracts to take advantage of the tariffs and competition between energy suppliers, even if it is not the case where water and energy services are not within a competitive market. But now the challenge is to base investment decisions for long-life water infrastructures on new technologies and economic analysis anticipating future energy costs or future water resources shortage: pumps and mains are dimensioned by optimizing the total cost of pipes and energy on the lifespan of the project; urban wastewater treatment plants cancel out their energy consumption.

The Mediterranean region must urgently take political action to avoid a catastrophic scenario: every delay makes solutions more difficult to implement. The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) made an important step in 2010 by producing a draft water strategy that addresses the actions described above. However, for political reasons, the strategy has not yet been approved officially. It is therefore of key importance that a strategy be approved as soon as possible in order to let the member states develop concrete action plans, explain and apply the draft orientations at ministerial level and in other spheres, so that effective water-energy nexus-related policies and projects can be developed, financed and implemented.

François Guerber is a senior advisor at Union for the Mediterranean Environment & Water Division. This article first appeared in the special UfM/Revolve report on Water Around the Mediterranean on pages 88-89.