Coal power uses more water

Although South Africa has been blessed with amazing natural resources, sadly water isn’t one of them.

While we have incredible coastlines and fisheries, fertile lands for feeding the nation, and an abundance of renewable energy sources, when it comes to perhaps the most precious resource of all, we are facing a serious challenge.

So this World Water Day it’s important to think about the future of water in South Africa, especially since our own government has admitted we could face serious water supply issues by as early as 2013.

Sure, we’ve faced water shortages and droughts in the past; water scarcity is nothing new for South Africa. But as climate change takes hold of the continent, and our developing nation relies on increasing amounts of water, the water challenge will be measured on a completely new scale.

The point is that the choices we make today will have a profound impact on how much water we have tomorrow. Personal choices – taking a short shower rather than a bath – are hugely important in this regard. But we also have to focus on much bigger water issues too, like the kinds of infrastructure that our government is investing in, and how our electricity is generated.

Coal powered water problems

Currently over 90% of South African’s electricity comes from coal power.  Burning coal to produce electricity is surely the dirtiest way to electrify a country, and it’s also a major contributor to climate change. Sticking with coal-powered electricity will intensify the effects of climate change, and make a bad water situation even worse.

But there’s more. Not only does coal power drive climate change, but it also uses up a huge chunk of our scarce water. So water we could be using to feed the country, for example, will instead be used to feed coal plants.

It’s estimated that Kusile (the second of Eskom’s massive coal power stations currently under construction) will consume approximately 26.15 million m3  of water a year. It means that for each unit of electricity produced, Kusile will use 173 times more water than wind power would use, and more than double what solar power would use. This despite the fact that the power station will be using the latest technology, and will be using comparatively ‘less’ water than the country’s older coal-fired power stations.

That’s a phenomenal amount of water being taken out of the system – water we need for survival, and water that we could be using in many other ways. And in a country like ours, it’s easy to see that coal power is far from the only power generation option we have. And it’s certainly far from the best power generation choice.

Time for sustainable energy choices

The bottom line is that coal power is an extremely bad choice in the context of climate change and water scarcity. Even if we were to completely ignore the effect that coal power will have on the climate, its impacts on our water situation are serious enough to warrant a complete overhaul of our energy system.

Looking to increasingly complex water transfer systems for a solution, like getting more water from Lesotho, isn’t going to help us. What we need is to be making more sustainable decisions right now, choices that will mean we won’t have to face major crises in the future.

Like I mentioned at the outset, South Africa has some of the world’s most abundant renewable energy sources – the sun and wind. It’s time our leaders moved away from coal power and embraced reliable renewable energy.

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