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How Energy is Linked to the Water Crisis in Cape Town — and Why American's Should Care

An article recently published by the Environmental Defense Fund highlights how water and energy are inextricably linked.

Cape Town, a major South African city, is counting down the days to Day Zero, when the city's taps, which provide 4 million inhabitants with water, are expected to run dry. While extreme water restrictions and water saving measures have pushed the date back from April to November 2018, the fact remains that the city's water supply is still extremely precarious.

"Yet, while this water crisis has been making headlines worldwide, nobody's talking about the connection between water and energy," says Kate Zerrenner, Senior Manager, Energy-Water Initiatives at the Environmental Defense Fund. "In a rapidly changing climate, we should."

According to a 2014 study, Cape Town is not the only water-stressed city in the world — the water supply of one out of every four larger cities around the world, including two or more US cities, is under duress. Zerrenner points out that many of these cities also happen to depend on coal — the world's thirstiest source of energy.

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The supply of water and energy go hand-in-hand, an association referred to as the energy-water nexus. Energy is used during water treatment processes and to pump water across the distribution network, while water is consumed during the production and supply of energy. Consequently, our choice of energy has a direct impact on our freshwater resources.

Conventional sources of power such as natural gas, coal and nuclear energy use an average of 25 gallons of water for every kilowatt-hour of power produced, with coal being the most water hungry, or in this case thirsty, using between 20-60 gallons to produce a kilowatt hour of electricity, depending on the cooling technology employed at the power plant.

Back home in the US, the average household uses around 900 kWh of electricity a month, which equates to roughly 23,000 gallons of water every month. That's just to meet the power needs of a typical American household, and doesn't account for water used for drinking, cooking, showering/bathing, dishwashing, laundry, flushing, etc, etc.

In Cape Town's case, 92% of the country's energy is supplied by coal. So even though residents in Cape Town and further afield have drastically cut back on their water usage during the prolonged drought currently affecting the region, the power plants that supply the country with energy continue to guzzle it up.

Will US Cities Be Next?

Climate change is causing unprecedented shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns across the world, including America, where many areas are already becoming hotter and drier. Texas is once again feeling the effects of drought, while California has suffered an extended period of drought that has already severely impacted California's agricultural sector. As these dry conditions extend eastward, more and more areas are becoming water stressed, with Miami considered one of the first US cities that could run out of water, largely due to contamination of it aquifers by saltwater intrusion from the ocean.

Perhaps now is a good time to reassess the energy-water nexus, and make decisions that could help us save the precious little water remaining.

Water-efficient Power Sources

The good news is that there are water-efficient alternatives to water-hungry power sources. These come in the form of clean energy, such as solar and wind power, which both use practically zero water. What's more, they are cleaner, and therefore better for the environment too. By the same token, energy-efficiency uses no water at all.

In the US, 85% of electricity is still supplied by water-hungry fossil fuels and nuclear. By simply improving energy efficiency and expanding solar and wind energy to meet more of the country's energy needs, while steadily reducing our dependence on more water-hungry sources of power, we can save huge amounts of water at a time when we are going to need it most.

"This is our opportunity here and around the world as we plan for the reliability and resilience of our energy and water systems. It's no longer possible to ignore the impact our energy sources has on critical water supplies, and vice versa," says Zerrenner. "We have already begun to turn toward a cleaner energy economy. The question now is whether we can ramp things up

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