No River, No Power – are we energy secure when rivers run dry?

By CWR 24 May, 2023

A new CWR report explores if 10 major climate-sensitive rivers still power 16 countries across Asia

CWR mapped 1/3rd of global powergen (1.9TW) & found sizeable trifecta exposure to escalating climate risks + rivers running dry: 865GW are located in 10 river basins – this is more than the total GW of the G7 ex-US. The 10 rivers also provide water to 1 in 2 Asian & support US$4.3trn+ of GDP
Clear national energy security implications for 16 countries from China, India, Pakistan, Laos, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nepal to Bhutan as 94% of the 865GW need water to generate electricity & 38% already faces severe water stress
High stakes = Asia must lead transition for prosperity tomorrow. Can start by 1) balancing waternomic & powergen risks; 2) picking the right power/cooling type & 3) dovetailing energy & water security plans – report has 8 recommendations

CWR releases No River, No Power – Can Asia’s rivers power growth in a changing climate?”, a new report which mapped a third of global power generation capacity to find that escalating climate risks and rivers running dry can strand sizeable portions of national power generation assets.

Findings are shocking but timely…

…rivers running dry can strand sizeable portions of national power generation assets

The report showed clear national energy security implications for 16 countries from China, India, Pakistan, Laos, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nepal to Bhutan and warned that given such material exposure, fossil fuel dependent Asia could hinder its own economic prosperity unless stakeholders make the right energy decisions today for economic, water and energy security tomorrow.

The report findings are shocking but timely and cannot be ignored especially since droughts, floods and rising temperatures along the Yangtze, Rhone, Colorado and Indus rivers last year disrupted power supply and wreaked havoc across global supply chains. Climate risks already pose grave threats to energy security, yet the report cautioned that worse is still to come.

The HKH 16’s power generation assets face trifecta exposure to water risks…

There is sizeable trifecta exposure of power assets to rising water risks highlighted in the report. Of the 1.9TW of analysed by CWR:

    1. almost half (or 865GW) is clustered in 10 rivers that flow from the Hindu Kush Himalayan Water Towers;
    2. over 94% of this needs water to generate electricity and
    3. almost 330GW or 38% is located in basin areas that already face ‘High’ to ‘Extremely High’ water stress or are arid.

865GW of power assets in the HKH River Basins > total GW of the G7 excluding the US

Clearly, exposure to acute and chronic river basin risks is high – for perspective, 865GW is greater than the combined electricity generation capacity of Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan and Russia or all the G7 countries excluding the US.

What are the 10 rivers?

They are the Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze and Yellow (the 10 HKH Rivers) – the cradles of Asia’s civilization. So there’s much more riding on getting water and energy policies right.

“Components of river flow such as glacial melt, snow/rainfall and monsoon patterns are all impacted by climate change so it’s not just national power assets that can be stranded, lives and livelihoods are also at stake – one in two Asians live in these 10 river basins where over US$4.3trn of GDP is generated annually,” explained Debra Tan, Head of CWR and lead author of the report.

Asia is power hungry but power choices impact water & no water can strand power…

Yet Asia is still power hungry. The ADB projects that APAC energy demand will double by 2030, and since key types of power generation in the region such as thermal power (coal, gas, oil and nuclear) and hydropower require water to generate electricity, demand for water will also rise.

IPCC AR6: under all 2°C scenarios, energy sector’s share of global freshwater use is projected to increase 25% by 2050…

…so more fossil fuel based power could result in a vicious cycle

Indeed, the global scientific consensus under the IPCC projects that under all 2°C scenarios, the energy sector’s share of global freshwater use is projected to increase to almost a quarter by 2050; driven mainly by the rapid increase in electricity demand across developing nations.

However, adding more fossil fuel based power to meet development needs could result in a vicious cycle – more carbon emissions will exacerbate water scarcity which in turn will accelerate the stranding of power assets that require water to operate.

(See At-a-glance Power Generation in the 10 HKH River Basins)

Tied energy & water futures = dovetailing of national energy & water security plans…

So since power choices can impact water and the lack of water can strand power assets, the report pointed out that water security should inform energy security and urged governments to plan economic development and power expansion with water resource availability in mind.

Uncertain future flows of the 10 rivers and extreme weather mean we must curate mountains-to-oceans waternomic roadmaps and energy systems that are resilient to climate change. National energy and water security plans must thus dovetail. The need to do all this is ever more urgent as doing so will help us manage escalating and compounding water risks as well as meet rising demand for water” said Tan.

Extreme weather is already triggering systemic shocks on a national scale – eg. Indus floods wiped out 10% of Pakistan’s GDP…

…but it could be worse as the Indus carries 92% of the country’s GDP

As it is, extreme weather in river systems can already trigger systemic shocks on a national scale. The devastating Indus floods last year are case in point – over 30mn people in Pakistan lost their homes and its GDP took an estimated 10% hit.

But impacts could be a lot worse: the new report showed the Indus river basin houses around 276mn or 88% of Pakistan’s population as well as 75% of national installed power capacity.

Moreover, 92% of national GDP is generated there – the Indus cannot be allowed to fail. As the Indus also has the highest risk exposure profiles to drought and flood risk, building resilience to extreme weather is key, said the report. (See At-a-glance: water, people, power & the economy for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam – collectively the HKH 16)

National energy security is tied to single or multiple rivers = transboundary challenges…

National water and energy security futures as well as economic growth are clearly tied via the 10 rivers. Besides Pakistan, the report also illustrated national energy dependence on singular to multiple rivers – for example, Bhutan & Nepal’s power generation face single key river risk with 100% of their generation assets located in the Brahmaputra and Ganges respectively. (See 10 HKH Rivers power Asia & National energy dependence on 10 HKH Rivers)

100% of Bhutan & Nepal power assets are in the Brahmaputra & Ganges basins…

…but India’s GW are spread across 3 rivers & China across 9 rivers

Meanwhile, a third of India’s national installed capacity straddled three rivers whereas around half of China’s national capacity installed is spread across seven rivers. Beyond power generation, the report also found that people and GDP are significantly exposed to river basin risks: for China, around 44% of its population and 30% of its GDP are clustered in nine rivers; for India, 54% of its population and 43% of its GDP are clustered in four rivers.

Transboundary management should not just be about water sharing but also energy policies + development eg. the Mekong

There are also transboundary issues. While installed capacity ranged from 9GW on the Amu Darya to 373GW on the Yangtze, the report noted that some rivers only serve one country whereas others serve multiple countries. For example, power assets along the Mekong serve five countries whereas power assets on the Tarim, Yangtze and Yellow only serve China.

“This means that the transboundary management of 8 out of the 10 rivers should not just be about water sharing but also energy policies and development as well” said Dr. CT Low, CWR’s Geospatial Risk Lead and co-author of the report.

16 countries are classified into 4 risk groups…

This is a mammoth task and the authors acknowledged that much more work needs to be done.

“The report is far from perfect, with clear data gaps, but given the risks, we felt compelled to make a start in unpacking Asia’s tight water-energy-climate nexus so that we can make informed energy decisions today for water tomorrow” said Dr. Low.

The ‘Overall High Risk Group’ has 8 countries

Regardless, “what’s clear is that the eight countries which fall into the ‘Overall High Risk Group’ must let basin risks guide energy policies” he added. (See how the HKH16 are classified into 4 Risk Groups here)

Coal reliant China & India must de-risk their coal fleet exposure to water risk

While, the report classified the 16 countries into 4 risk groups, it is worth noting that China and India are not in the ‘Overall High Risk Group’.

Although China & India face relatively less risk, they are coal reliant & material shares of coal GW are face severe water stress … and/or face high drought/flood risks

However, the report emphasized that coal-reliant China and India can play key roles in regional energy and water security as they have the most amount of GW clustered in areas facing severe water stress in the 10 river basins: 188GW or 43% of China’s coal-fired capacity in the 10 basins face ‘High’ to ‘Extremely High’ water stress; although India’s fleet is smaller at 55GW, its exposure to severe water stress is higher at 83%.

According to the IPCC, one way to build energy resilience is to shift power expansion towards less water and carbon intensive power generation types such as solar PV and wind. However, this may be easier said than done as it may be difficult to completely de-coal from an energy security standpoint.

IPCC recommends shifting towards less water & carbon intensive power types…

…CWR report has 8 recommendations for a water secure future

So, the report suggested as part of its 8 broad recommendations that coal-fired plants, which are key for base load and energy security, to maximise energy efficiencies; consider carbon capture; and retrofit plants with cooling tech to alleviate water stress in severely water stressed areas.

The report’s deep dive into cooling technologies showed that there is indeed room for improvement.

Picking the right power & cooling type can alleviate water stress but beware of trade-offs!

It’s imperative that China and India along with the other 14 countries choose the right type of power but Dr Low cautioned to “beware of the trade-offs – carbon capture is water intensive, so limited water can constrain such options and while air-cooling can alleviate water stress, it uses more power”.

Perversely, “as extreme weather can cause disruptions in hydropower, more coal-fired capacity may be added to balance the grid and avoid disruption he added. Here, the report did note a surge in “just-in-case” coal-fired power additions in China after the severe droughts along the Yangtze in 2022.

CWR is optimistic! Asia must & can lead global transition…

Balancing the power generation mix, carbon emissions, water use and energy security is challenging but CWR remains optimistic about the transition.

“We are optimistic that Asia can fast track the transition given the speed of growth in clean energy. For example, did you know that China’s clean electricity output of 2,960TWh in 2022 has already surpassed the EU’s 2021 total electricity generation of 2,785TWh?” remarked Tan. Investments in renewables are rising from Asia; according to Bloomberg, China spent close to US$100bn in large-scale solar and wind in 1H2022 alone – see how far China has come in the last decade and a half here.

Also, the IEA stated that China and India are both doubling renewable expansion for the next five years. But, given their coal fleet exposure to water risks, China and India can do more to de-risk – for details please see 8 Recommendations or get key points from the media pack.

In developing Asia, we have the luxury of real time adjustments to our development models to rein in emissions plus build infrastructure to adapt to climate impacts. Asia must absolutely grasp this opportunity to fast track the transition as well as prepare and adapt for escalating water risks.” urged Tan.

High stakes + lack in global transition =  Asia has no choice but to step up to protect its rivers…

The stakes cannot be higher – if we do not manage to rein in emissions, the IPCC projects that 3-4bn people could face chronic water scarcity. Ultimately, all carbon intensive energy assets around the world will raise Asia’s water risks.

4/10 rivers will see overall falls in flows by mid-century under a 1.5-2°C scenario…

…but current geopolitics is steering us towards IPCC SSP3 scenario of over 4°C of warming

The current oil boom as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war only adds oil to fire, steering us dangerously towards the IPCC SSP3 “Regional Rivalry Scenario” of over 4°C of warming.

As the report projects that four of the 10 rivers will see overall falls in river flows by mid-century under a 1.5-2°C scenario, 4°C will truly be “climate hell”. This leaves China and India with no choice but to step up and lead the world in fast tracking decarbonisation.

It’s now up to Asia to put in sensible energy policies that will protect & not destroy our rivers

CWR hopes that the report will change the way we look at power and rivers. It has certainly provided a compelling case. Now it’s up to those of us with a stake in Asia to build on this work so that we can better inform and shape our shared energy and water futures.

As Tan succinctly summed, Now is the time for Asia to put in place sensible energy policies that will protect and not destroy our rivers. If we do not fail our rivers, our rivers will not fail us”.

Dip into this report and you’ll never look at power & rivers in the same way again. Start with the Executive Summary or dive into the full report or check out the Media Pack. See what else is in store here.

If you want to find out more … contact us!

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