Shared Water Resources in Western Asia: an Inventory Approach

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The sharing of water resources has been an influential feature affecting life, society and development in the Arabian Peninsula, the Mashrek and Mesopotamia for millennia. Historically, communities living in these arid and semi-arid regions always shared the water of rivers, springs and wadis, although this was more out of necessity than idealism. Water resources were traditionally managed at the local level, with tensions emerging between Bedouins, shepherds, pastoralists and
growing urban centres. Water management and irrigation schemes – such as the underground aqueducts or falaj networks found in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – sustained different communal needs for dozens of centuries, while the marshes of Mesopotamia, the Tigris floodplain and the Jordan River Valley were cultivated and sustained successive civilizations since earliest of times. Hillside terraces from Lebanon to Yemen meanwhile demonstrated the early integration between water and land resources management schemes and local efforts to safeguard water for productive purposes. With the expansion of empires and the changing patterns of commerce between east and west, tradesmen tried to tame the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers for navigation purposes prior to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, albeit with limited success. Following the creation of modern nation states in Western Asia starting in the first half of the 20th century, most of the region’s major rivers and many aquifer systems were found to cross political borders.

However, their management did not emerge as a major problem until increasing freshwater scarcity exposed dependencies on internationally shared water resources. During the second half of the 20th century, technological transformations, demographic changes, natural resource extraction, ethnosectarian
conflicts and development needs fundamentally altered the way that water resources were managed internally and addressed in international relations. Largescale irrigation projects boosted investments in and socio-economic dependencies on the water and agricultural sectors. The damming of major rivers for hydropower generation and the expansion of irrigation networks created new economic opportunities upstream, while causingnegative impacts on downstream water users and ecosystems in neighbouring countries, especially during the filling of reservoirs. Smallscale dams on tributaries and in catchment areas also impacted downstream flows, and affected the availability and seasonality of water in intermittent streams. Political conflicts and the occupation of Arab lands also prevented access to surface and groundwater resources, which had traditionally sustained the livelihoods of rural communities. Meanwhile, changing development paradigms and political uncertainties prompted the adoption of national policies to pursue food security through food self-sufficiency in many Western Asian countries, which led to the further extraction of surface and groundwater resources through the subsidization and centralization of largeand small-scale agricultural production.

Considerable quantities of surface water were thus abstracted and increasingly diverted out-of-basin, while return flows from waterintensive agricultural projects polluted rivers and groundwater reserves. Water quality deteriorated, most notably through increased salinity, further affecting domestic and agricultural users downstream. In addition, exponential population growth rates throughout the region caused a sharp rise in demand. Concurrently, agricultural production flourished with the introduction of groundwater pumps in the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in the intensive development of groundwater resources. However, the arid climate and low rainfall levels meant that groundwater abstraction quickly exceeded recharge, which in turn led to the drying up of springs, streams and shallow groundwater bodies, some of which had flowed across national borders. Further advances in drilling and pumping technology allowed for the exploitation of deep groundwater reserves in the Arabian Peninsula, which were created thousands of years ago and are nonrenewable under current climatic conditions. These deep fossil aquifers are often highly productive and constitute a unique kind of shared water resource in the region. Today, water scarcity levels regionally are well below the water poverty level of 1,000 m3 per capita. However, population growth rates and rural-to-urban migration patterns continue to fuel the expansion of the industrial and service sectors and to increase demand for freshwater resources, as well as water supply and sanitation services. Political unrest and the Arab-Israeli conflict also impede opportunities for constructive dialogue on shared water resources. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector remains the largest consumer of freshwater resources and shared water resources in the region. Climate variability and climate change evidenced by droughts and flash floods, in addition to the unsustainable abstraction of groundwater resources have affected agricultural productivity and further fuelledsocial unrest.

Some states in the Western Asia region have been able to adapt to this condition by increasing investments in desalination, dams, diversions and non-conventional water resources to enhance supply in the face of increasing demand. However, these supply side interventions have often been pursued unilaterally with limited consultation or coordination with downstream users within a shared basin. Water use efficiency improvements have also been pursued, but only to a moderate extent, despite the shared benefits that could be generated by reducing freshwater consumption. As such, dependency on shared surface and groundwater resources persists in the face of growing water scarcity and will continue to be a dominant influence on development policy and inter-state relations in Western Asia. Read on...


Setbacks in Sustainability Communication.

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This is the two hundredth _kt75 | post since February 2010 and with a daily hit rate between 100 and 200 unique visitors the _kt75 | mirror appears to be a well-accepted source of information in a rather narrow niche: sustainable development with a focus on water management. However, even reliable entities like the _kt75 | mirror seem to be subject to some kind of censor-ship. Just recently the LinkedIN channel of the _kt75 | mirror was temporarily shut-down because of the following baseless accusations:
  • phishing
  • multiple contacting
  • spamming
Phishing was never done via _kt75 | mirror, neither multiple contacting. Remains 'spamming'.
Now, it might be worth to clarify that the _kt75 | mirror is operated without any kind of (3rd party) advertisement. The only service _kt75 | mirror offers (free of charge) is information supply. This effort is performed with highest dedication and accuracy. The intention is to provide reasonable, in-depth insights at the right time.
In this context it might be worth to buttress the seriosity of _kt75 | mirror with a few figurer, accordingly
That the LinkedIN channel of the _kt75 | mirror was subject to a temporary shut-down because of the above accusations is also perceived as a bad sign, a setback in free and liberal sustainability communication. If there is someone around not satisfied with something then this should be addressed directly. Accusations as the above can easily lead to some sort of censorship can definitely help preventing the dissemination of important information. Even more - free and liberal debates ask for sound ethics, accusations cannot be part of this.

Despite of the above accusations, the _kt75 | mirror will be operated as before and interested stakeholders are very welcome to explore its services. This might, however, imply that the the LinkedIN channel of the _kt75 | mirror will be shut-down definitely. In this case you are very welcome to sign-up for the _kt75 | first reader and/or join the platform Sustainability2.0.

German economy vulnerable to global water scarcity

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Water is scarce but it continues to be wasted excessively in many industrial states, warns a new study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), predicting that a global conflict over water resources could bring billions in losses for the German market. EurActiv Germany reports. 

Tomatoes from Spain, textiles from India, metals from South Africa, roses from Kenya; every year, Germany imports massive amounts of goods from around the world that would not be available without considerable water resources. But water is becoming an increasingly scarce global resource. In many countries, it has become more and more difficult to supply the population with adequate drinking water and irrigation for crops. Besides export-reliant countries with critical water resources, the effects of the shortage can be devastating for others as well. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the worldwide water shortage will also impact industrialised European countries like Germany. If German imports are cut off due to water shortages in producer states, German companies would be hard hit, said a WWF study released on Wednesday (27 August). Philip Wagnitz, one of the authors of the study, said many German economic sectors are both responsible for and affected by the international water crisis, from the food sector to the auto and fashion industries. In Germany itself, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has indicated sufficient water resources. The country's annual water supply is estimated around 188 billion cubic metres. But Wagnitz explained that the third largest importing country in the world is extremely dependent on foreign goods, which often require large quantities of water during production.  

9,000 litres of water for one kilogram of cotton WWF reported that annual cotton and textile imports from Pakistan to Germany, require twice as much water as the volume of Germany's fifth largest lake, the Starnberger See, which holds three billion cubic metres of water. Almost 9,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of cotton in Pakistan, primarily drawn from rivers in eastern parts of the country. But even so, only around one third of the water even reaches the fields, the WWF study indicated. The rest evaporates or leaks out along the way in decrepit irrigation canals. As a result, many areas pump the water they need directly from the groundwater. The effects of this type of water abstraction can be observed in areas such as the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, WWF warned. There, the sea’s tributaries have been dried up by cotton production, causing the sea to shrink by almost 90%. 

Companies slow to recognise risks In extreme cases, growing water risks being brought on by these developments could create billions in losses for German companies, Wagnitz said. The affected firms would have to deal with image problems and site closures, he stated. Still, many do not even realise their own exposure to hidden water scarcity risks, the WWF expert warned. They will only become aware of the issue once shortages start to materialise, Wagnitz explained.
This is precisely what happened in India recently, he said, when Coca-Cola was forced to close one of its bottling sites. Farmers in the area complained that water they needed was being wasted on soft drink production. Wagnitz mentioned the apparel manufacturer H&M as another example: When cotton harvests in many parts of Pakistan were desolated by monsoon rains four years ago, prices for raw materials grew painfully high. In the worst case, the WWF expert said, flooding or droughts could cause billions in losses on the local market. Read on ...


Fracking: Report Cites Bad Wells for Tainted Water

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Download: Quarterly Notes on Sustainable Water Management - Q02/2014.

Natural gas is contaminating some aquifers not from hydraulic fracturing but from faulty well preparation, according to a new paper. Poorly built and cemented gas wells, rather than fracking itself, have allowed contaminants to flow into shallow drinking-water sources, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

A debate has raged for years over whether the U.S. energy boom is fouling aquifers and water wells—and what can be done about it. Researchers reported Monday that they developed a tool that can identify whether underground gas has migrated toward the surface over time, or whether it moved recently and rapidly up an industry-drilled well or the cement surrounding the well pipe. Fracking involves pushing a slurry of water, sand and chemicals down a well to break up dense rocks and coax more fuel from the ground. Many academics and some industry engineers have long argued that when contamination occurs, it is the result of bad well construction not the fracking process. Others in the energy industry have maintained that natural gas has been found in aquifers and water wells for years and that there is no proof that fracking or other drilling has made it worse. "Where contamination occurs, it related strictly to well integrity," said study co-author Thomas Darrah, an assistant professor at Ohio State University. "The answer is not to stop drilling. The fix is better executions on the construction of the well and improving well integrity." He said evidence of contamination didn't correlate to wholesale leaks caused by fracking. Michael Krancer, a former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection, expressed skepticism that there could be any simple, uncontested way to determine the provenance of natural gas. "What people are expecting—and they are not going to get—is a pregnancy test. It is much more complicated than that," said Mr. Krancer, now head of the energy group at law firm Blank Rome LLP.

The authors of the study, funded by National Science Foundation and Duke University, said their new means of fingerprinting natural gas uses concentrated inert noble gases such as helium and argon to determine whether gas in an aquifer has been there for decades or appeared only recently, flowing up through man-made wells bored into shale rock. "We have developed a tool that can be employed for detecting the source of contamination," said study co-author Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemistry professor. The study said the new process showed that poorly built and cemented gas wells have caused contamination in eight clusters: seven in northeastern Pennsylvania and one near Fort Worth, Texas. The study didn't address how common well-integrity failure is, or what level of gas in an aquifer made the water unsafe. Read on...


EU: The Price of Water on the Rise/CH: Wasser wird teurer...

The environmental resources situation is shaped by changes in climatic conditions, coupled with pressures exerted by a rapidly growing global population, its increasing demands and the subsequent impacts on the environment. Current practices across the economy sectors are still not sufficiently ambitious in terms of sustainability; they fail to ameliorate the stress conditions of vital resources like water. In recent years, the need has been highlighted for governance and management schemes that allocate resources appropriately among users (including the environment) and that promote the efficient use of such resources. The very nature of these needs calls for adequate policy responses. One of these policy responses — applied either separately or in combination with other economic or regulatory instruments — is water pricing. The use of such instruments brings additional social and political issues into the already complex equation of sustainable management of water resources. Calculating a price that reflects the true value of water, and thereby contributing to the long-term sustainable management of water resources, is clearly not a simple task. However, it is critical, for both the effectiveness and the integrity of the proposed water pricing systems. In terms of regulatory principles, Article 9 of the WFD introduces the principle of cost recovery for water services in accordance with the PPP. In addition, Article 9 promotes the internalisation of environmental and resource costs that result from existing uses of water resources and of aquatic ecosystems. Read on...

Der Bund weist auf offene Finanzierungsfragen bei der Versorgung mit Trinkwasser hin. Das Verursacherprinzip soll bei der Verrechnung künftig eine kleinere Rolle spielen.
An vielen Orten wird das Wasser in den nächsten Jahren teurer. Ein unlängst publizierter, aber kaum rezipierter Bericht des Bundesamts für Umwelt (Bafu) erkennt einen Investitionsstau bei den Erneuerungen der Versorgungsanlagen. Ausserdem führten die immer besseren Analyseverfahren dazu, dass mehr Substanzen nachgewiesen werden könnten; das Resultat dürften wachsende Anforderungen an die Qualität des Trinkwassers sein. Gleichzeitig ortet das Bafu Probleme bei der Anpassung der Tarife. Aus politischen Gründen seien diese vielerorts zu tief. Eine Benchmarking-Studie habe nur bei rund der Hälfte der untersuchten Gemeinden eine genügende Finanzierungsbasis (Eigenfinanzierung) der Wasserversorgung eruiert, heisst es.

Bereits markante Erhöhungen

Ein Viertel der Wasserversorgungen müsse in Zukunft die Gebühren «erheblich» anheben, so das Bafu. Urs Kamm vom Schweizerischen Verein des Gas- und Wasserfaches (SVGW) erklärt, dass die absehbaren Erhöhungen vor allem ländliche Gemeinden betreffen dürften. Andere Versorger hätten in den letzten Jahren bereits Erhöhungen durchgeführt. Der Durchschnittspreis eines Kubikmeters Trinkwasser sei in den letzten fünf Jahren von 1 Franken 60 auf 1 Franken 80 gestiegen, so die neusten Daten des SVGW. Die regionalen Abweichungen von diesem Mittelwert sind aber mit über 50 Prozent beachtlich. Gründe dafür sind neben den Differenzen punkto nachhaltiger Finanzierung auch die unterschiedlichen Kosten für die Wasseraufbereitung je nach Bezugsquelle und die topografischen Erfordernisse des Netzes.

Das Kernproblem des Wasserverbrauchs sei dabei der Umstand, dass die Kosten für die Anlagen auf die Spitzenbezüge konzipiert werden müssten. Damit bezahle faktisch der Endkunde nicht so sehr für die individuell verbrauchte Menge als vielmehr für die Möglichkeit, jederzeit Wasser zu beziehen. Diese Situation wird noch durch den Umstand verstärkt, dass viele Versorgungsstrukturen vor einigen Jahrzehnten zu gross geplant und gebaut wurden. Einst war der Verbrauch der Industrie noch bedeutend höher als heute. Seit 1985 sind eigentliche Rückgänge beim Wasserverbrauch schweizweit festzustellen (siehe Grafik), auch in absoluten Zahlen, unabhängig vom Bevölkerungsanstieg.
Aufgrund der hohen Fixkostenanteile von bis zu 90 Prozent durch die kostspieligen Infrastrukturanlagen bei den Wasserversorgungen empfiehlt der SVGW seinen Mitgliedern, künftig zwischen 50 und 80 Prozent der Kosten via Grundgebühren zu überwälzen und nur den Rest über die Zählung der verbrauchten Kubikmeter Wasser.
Findet dieser Kostenschlüssel in den nächsten Jahren immer mehr Verbreitung, wird der finanzielle Anreiz zum Wassersparen wohl geschmälert, wie im Bericht des Bundes argumentiert wird. In der Stadt Zürich entspricht just zur Förderung des Wassersparens die Grundgebühr weiterhin nur rund 40 Prozent des Wasserpreises. In Zürich seien auch keine Erhöhungen geplant; man habe vielmehr die Preise vor einigen Jahren gesenkt, auf einen Durchschnittspreis von zwei Franken pro Kubikmeter, heisst es auf Anfrage. In Bern kennt man eine in der Grundgebühr enthaltene kostenlose Bezugsmenge. Bei einem gewöhnlichen Haushalt resultiert daraus aber umgerechnet ebenfalls eine eher kleine Grundgebühr. Weiterlesen...


Under Pressure: Water Supply in Brazil

A severe drought affecting Brazil’s biggest city has led to a “water war” that could cause the water supply to collapse in parts of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Authorities in São Paulo have been battling a water crisis for months as reservoirs run dry for lack of rainfall.Earlier this month, the state energy company in São Paulo (Cesp) asked the national operator of the electric system (ONS) to reduce the water flow at the Jaguari hydro-electric dam on the Rio Paraíba do Sul from 40,000 litres per second to 10,000 litres per second.The measure was intended to prioritise water supply to residents in São Paulo state over energy generation.But according to the ONS, which reduced the flow over several days to just 30,000 litres per second, a unilateral reduction would empty reserves and leave millions in 41 municipalities without water by the end of October.
In a statement, the operator said: “The ONS informed the National Water Agency and Cesp that it was not considered viable to meet the request of the agency.” Public prosecutors in Rio have requested information about increasing the water flow of the Paraíba do Sul river, which runs through Rio state and into São Paulo. The dispute over resources has caused conflict between the state governments in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Reports suggested the row could end up in the hands of the president, Dilma Rousseff. “São Paulo cannot take a unilateral decision,” Luiz Fernando Pezão, Rio governor, told Estadão newspaper.“I’m sure the federal government, through the National Water Agency, will determine what has to be done with the Paraíba do Sul river.” Residents in Rio state have reportedly already been affected with shortages that coincided with the temporary reduction in water flow at the dam. Read on...


Iraq's Water: Another Threat in Paradise?

IRAQ depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for drinking water, supplying industry and irrigating massive swathes of farmland. The two rivers account for 98% of the country’s surface water. Until recently the government’s greatest concern has been the fact that the source of neither river is in the country. In the past few decades dams and diversions across Turkey and Syria have steadily reduced the quantity of water reaching Iraq.
Now Iraq has a greater concern. Both waterways flow through areas of northern Iraq controlled by the Islamic State (IS), an extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and today claims an area the size of Jordan straddling Syria and Iraq. On August 8th America began air strikes against the group, after IS carried out a series of attacks that targeted minorities including Christians and Yazidis and threatened the semi-autonomous northern area of Kurdistan. In one of those attacks, on August 7th, IS took control of Mosul dam.
After targeting oil fields in Syria and Iraq, IS may now have its sights trained on water. Mosul is not the only dam for which IS has fought. After taking large parts of Iraq in a campaign that started in Mosul, the country's second largest city, in June, on August 1st IS battled to take control of Haditha dam on the Euphrates in the eastern province of al-Anbar. The fighters were repelled by Iraqi troops and Sunni tribes, but reports suggest the offensive continues.
IS may want to control these resources in order to bolster its claim to run a state. But it may have additional motives. Baghdad and southern Iraq rely on water being released from these dams. So IS could cut off the water, limiting flows to Baghdad and the south or, conversely, release large amounts that could cause floods (although this would also flood areas controlled by IS, including Mosul city, south of the dam).
Any change in water flows would also affect the availability of food, because Iraq is heavily dependent on irrigation to grow wheat, barley, rice, corn and fruit and vegetables. IS has already taken control of a number of government wheat-storage sites in Ninewa, Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces. Some reports suggest that it is using these to supply flour to residents in the provinces north of Baghdad who are now cut off from a public programme that distributes flour, rice, sugar, and sunflower oil. Others reckon IS will sell the wheat—like it has oil—to local mills, bakers and farmers to generate additional funds. Read on ...


Back in Black: China's Massive Coal Industry Devouring Water Resources

On a bitter cold day in Inner Mongolia, the grasslands here hold an unexpected sight: a shallow lake so warm the surface is shrouded in steam. This lake is a recent addition, formed by water discharged from a new plant that converts coal into methane gas.
When operating at full capacity, the Datang International plant will require more than 7 billion gallons of water each year. And this is just a side stream of the vast flows of water demanded by plants turning coal into gas, chemicals and electricity in Inner Mongolia and other regions of China's north and west. These coal complexes rank among the planet's largest industrial emitters of carbon dioxide, which in the decades ahead will escalate climate change and acidification of the oceans. But right now, the coal industry's massive thirst may be both its biggest liability and the biggest constraint to expansion in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people struggling with serious water shortages. Vast amounts of water are used for cooling and processing some 4 billion tons of coal that China consumes each year.

Some 15% of the nation's annual water withdrawals are claimed by the coal industry, with many mines and plants located in arid areas where rivers are under stress, underground aquifers are in decline and pollution is rampant. In the decades ahead, climate change will aggravate China's water problems by melting glaciers that help sustain the summer flows of some major rivers. By 2030, the basin of the Yellow River, China's second-longest river, is forecast to be 18% short of the water needed to meet demand, according to a study from China's Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. Conservation efforts by the Chinese government include the construction of new coal-fired power plants that recirculate the water used for cooling. China also is spending $62 billion to redistribute water by canals from wetter areas of the country to dry zones in one of the biggest construction projects of all time. Despite such efforts, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in a report released in 2013, noted that most of the power plants operated by the five largest state-owned power companies are in water-scarce areas and at high risk of flow disruptions during the next two decades. There may not be enough water to support all the new coal plants, the report added.

In Inner Mongolia, water shortages have been a problem for decades. Overgrazing and farming have turned some once-productive lands into dust bowls, forcing the relocation of thousands of people, and stirring up huge sand storms that have swept across Asia. Coal development in recent years added to the region's stresses, accelerating desertification as open-pit mines reroute water flows and coal plants draw from water reserves. "We already find great tension between coal and water. Many communities are affected, and the industry is overusing water from the major rivers," said Sun Qingwei, an environmental activist with a PhD in geography who has conducted extensive research in Inner Mongolia and other arid regions. Read on ...


The Iranian Water Crisis: A Strategic Analysis

Abstract In 2013 faced with a critical shortage of water, the Iranian government called for water conservation and greater water use efficiency nation-wide. Despite imminent shortages, water use in Iran remains inefficient, with domestic use 70 per cent higher than the global average. Iran has a national population of 75 million people, 12 million of whom reside in the capital; demand for water is rapidly increasing, even as major lakes and groundwater resources begin to shrink. Population growth, more frequent droughts and the effects of climate change are creating the ‘perfect storm’ for future water insecurity. We are left with the question, are the proposed changes too little, too late?

Paper (abbrev.) Security in the Middle East continues to focus on the political and geostrategic priorities of regional states, but a greater challenge has now presented itself, in the form of natural resource scarcity and vulnerable water supplies. Issa Kalantari, former Iranian Minister for Agriculture has stated in an interview that the water crisis in Iran is the biggest problem threatening the state. Overshadowed in global current affairs by Iranian politics and the negotiations over its nuclear program, the looming water crisis presents a formidable challenge. Located in one of the most arid regions in the world, Iran has an annual average precipitation rate of 252 millimetres, approximately one third of the global average. Exacerbating the severity of water shortages, as much as 70 per cent of precipitation is lost to evaporation. Estimates suggest that lower-than-average precipitation in 2013 caused a 30 per cent reduction in the volume of water in dams across the country, with only five exceeding 90 per cent capacity. According to the Institute for Forest and Pasture Research, groundwater levels have dropped two metres in recent years across 70 plains, affecting as much as 100 million hectares. According to the UN Development Program, the level of Iran’s per capita water resources are predicted to fall to as little as 816m³ in 2025, down from 2,025m³ in 1990. Iran is divided into six key and 31 secondary catchment areas.

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Besides the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman Basins, all of Iran’s basins are located in the interior, where renewable freshwater sources are limited. Close to half of Iran’s total renewable water is located in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman Basins, representing one quarter of its land mass. Conversely, the Markazi Basin covers more than half of Iran’s land mass, but holds less than one-third of
the available freshwater. Over 84 per cent of Iran is arid or semi-arid; over 50 per cent of the country is either desert or mountain; and 16 per cent of the Iranian landmass has an elevation of 2000m or more above sea level. Streams are seasonal, causing flooding during spring and drying during summer, leading to significant variability in freshwater access for those reliant on surface water resources. Due to high evaporation of surface water, Iranian’s have, for centuries, used traditional methods of water transport and access to supply their freshwater resources. More than 2000 years old, the Qanat is still used in Iran today and is designed to access and transfer groundwater without the use of lifting devices. Wells are sunk every 20 to 50 metres along the system, with a tunnel then built to link the wells on a slope from higher ground. Groundwater flows naturally down the tunnel till it reaches a surface point at the end, either in a town or city, or by creating an artificial desert oasis. Read on...


Intermittent Renewables: will 'Power-to-Gas' be the Solution?

The German government has committed the country to an 'Energiewende', in which at least 80% of electricity production and 60% of primary energy needs are to be supplied by solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources by 2050. A big open question is how the intermittency of renewable energy sources like wind and sunshine can be reconciled with the need to reliably supply energy whenever and wherever it's needed, whether to heat homes, fuel trucks and trains, or power electrical equipment.

'Power-to-gas' and 'power-to-liquids' could be the answer, according to engineers and researchers who spoke to a packed hall at the third annual conference of the Power to Gas Association in Berlin on Wednesday (2.7.2014), hosted by the German Energy Agency (DENA).
Michael Sterner, a professor at East Bavarian Technical University in Regensburg, says the technology is crucial to the success of the Energiewende. "Power-to-gas is absolutely necessary for a 100 percent renewable energy power supply and for the decarbonization of the transportation and chemical industry," he told DW.

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In principle, the technology proposition is straightforward. Germany, like most developed countries, already has a well-developed network of pipelines and storage tanks for natural gas. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is used to heat homes and generate electricity in gas turbines. Methane, the main component of natural gas, also serves as a basic feedstock for the petrochemical industry, which makes everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals.
It turns out that the existing gas storage and distribution network could be used to solve the country's energy storage problem. That's because fossil fuel reservoirs (natural gas wells) are not the only available source of methane. Professor Sterner explained that methane can also be synthesized in chemical factories from three simple and common ingredients: carbon dioxide, water, and electricity.
Using a long-established process called 'electrolysis', chemical engineers can tear apart water and carbon dioxide molecules (H2O and CO2), and then recombine the pieces into any number of new molecules - starting with methane, CH4.

The methane synthesis process requires electricity as an input, which is why it's called 'power-to-gas'. If the electricity comes from a renewable energy source like a wind turbine or a solar array, the resulting synthetic methane is called 'renewable gas', or sometimes by special names like 'wind-gas' or 'solar gas', depending on the source of the primary energy input.
Among many other things, engineers can take synthetic methane and further process it to make synthetic liquid fuels like methanol or butanol - which can be used to fuel diesel or gasoline engines - or kerosene, which is the main constituent of jet fuel. The relevant terms of art are 'power-to-liquids' or 'renewable liquid fuels'.
So far so good - but while the technology is quite straightforward, the business case isn't. It doesn't cost very much to sink a well and tap natural gas from a geological formation, or to send it to distant markets by pipeline. Natural gas is cheap. Synthetic methane is much more expensive. Read on...
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