Thirsty energy

26 June 2014

Significant amounts of water are needed in almost all energy generation processes, from generating hydropower, to cooling and other purposes in thermal power plants, to extracting and processing fuels. Conversely, the water sector needs energy to extract, treat and transport water. Population growth and rapidly expanding economies place additional demands on water and energy, while several regions around the world are already experiencing significant water and energy shortages.

Today, more than 780M people lack access to potable water, and over 1.3B people lack access to electricity. At the same time, estimates show that by 2035, global energy consumption will increase by 35%, while water consumption by the energy sector will increase by 85%. Climate change will further challenge water and energy management by causing more water variability and intensified weather events, such as severe floods and droughts.

These interdependencies complicate possible solutions and make a compelling case to expeditiously improve integrated water and energy planning in order to avoid unwanted future scenarios.

“The world's energy and water are inextricably linked. With demand rising for both resources and increasing challenges from climate change, water scarcity can threaten the long-term viability of energy projects and hinder development," said Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change.

While a global water crisis could take place in the future, the energy challenge is present. Water constraints have already adversely impacted the energy sector in many parts of the world. In the US several power plants have been affected by low water flows or high water temperatures. In India, a thermal power plant recently had to shut down due to a severe water shortage. France has been forced to reduce or halt energy production in nuclear power plants due to high water temperatures threatening cooling processes during heatwaves. Recurring and prolonged droughts are also threatening hydropower capacity in many countries, such as Sri Lanka, China and Brazil.

Despite these concerns, current energy planning and production is often made without taking into account existing and future water constraints. Planners and decision-makers in both sectors often remain ill-informed about the drivers of these challenges, how to address them, and the merits of different technical, political, management, and governance options. The absence of integrated planning between these two sectors is socio-economically unsustainable.

Global initiative

"Thirsty energy quantifies tradeoffs and identifies synergies between water and energy resource management"

To support countries' efforts to address challenges in energy and water management proactively, the World Bank has embarked on a global initiative: thirsty energy. Thirsty energy aims to help governments prepare for an uncertain future, and break disciplinary silos that prevent cross-sectoral planning. With the energy sector as an entry point, thirsty energy quantifies tradeoffs and identifies synergies between water and energy resource management.

The new initiative will demonstrate the importance of combined energy and water management approaches through demand-based work in several countries, providing examples of how evidence-based operational tools in resource management can enhance sustainable development. This created knowledge will be shared more broadly with other countries facing similar challenges.

Initial work has already started in South Africa and dialogue has been initiated in Bangladesh, Morocco, and Brazil where the challenges have already manifested and where demand now exists for integrated approaches.

What is Thirsty Energy doing?

  • Increasing awareness regarding the water requirements of energy projects among political decision makers, the private sector and other stakeholders in order to reduce energy projects' vulnerability to water constraints.
  • Enhancing stakeholder capacity to plan and manage energy and water resources comprehensively, by improving the tools and technical solutions available to assess the economic, environmental and social implications of water constraints in energy and power expansion plans.
  • Developing innovative technical tools and approaches and policy-oriented material and guidance to help countries develop and manage their energy and water resources in a sustainable way.
  • Fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between the energy and water sectors and promoting knowledge exchange to help develop an integrated management framework and ensure its practical application.

The World Bank believes that the issue is too large for any partner or sector to tackle alone. Solutions exist, but countries must continue to innovate and adapt policies and technology to address the complexity of the landscape. These solutions include technological development and adoption, improved operations to reduce water use and impacts in water quality, and strong integrated planning.

“The absence of integrated planning is unsustainable," says Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency. "Water constraints on the energy sector can be overcome but all stakeholders, public and private, must work together to develop innovative tools and use water as a guiding factor for assessing viability of projects."

“We cannot meet our global energy goals of extending access to the poor, increasing efficiency and expanding renewables without water," Rachel Kyte from the World Bank adds. "The water energy interrelationship is critical to build resilient as well as efficient, clean energy systems. The time to act is now."

Further information

For more details contact Marcelino Madrigal, Senior Energy Specialist, Energy Unit, Email:
Diego Rodriguez, Senior Economist, Water Unit, Email:

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