Mar 25, 2013
Govts face difficult task of balancing competing needs
By Grace Chua
THE world's scarce resources are going to get even more scarce - and pricier. Earlier this month, Environment and Water Resources Minister
Vivian Balakrishnan said in Parliament: "The era of cheap energy, cheap resources, cheap food is going to come to an end."
Why? Global demand for food, water and energy will only rise in the years ahead, driven by a growing, urbanising population. Issues surrounding food, water and energy are closely linked, and so are their solutions.
Indeed, overcoming one resource's scarcity can cause shortages in other areas. Farming can cause water pollution, food and biofuel crops can compete for the same scarce land, and turning seawater into clean, potable water takes energy. By United Nations estimates, the world will need a third more water, 45 per cent more energy, and 50 per cent more food by 2030.
Singapore, too, will need more resources. Its water demand is expected to double in the next 50 years, up from 380 million gallons a day, enough to fill 692 swimming pools. And as its economy grows, so will its energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. These are projected to be 77.2 million tonnes in 2020 if Singapore does nothing to mitigate them, up from 43.4 million tonnes in 2010.
Singapore wants to provide all of its own water by the time its second water agreement with Malaysia runs out in 2061.
Yet the technologies it must use to treat, reclaim and desalinate water all require energy - from fossil fuels it must import from elsewhere. In turn, extracting fossil fuels and cooling refineries use water, while power generation companies need water to produce the steam that turns turbines to generate electricity.
Nuclear power generation can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But it can take a toll on water resources, as water is used for cooling, for uranium mining and for storing fuel rods.
Both water and energy are also needed for food production. At the same time, unsustainable agricultural methods drain resources or pollute the very sources of water they rely on. For instance, Central Asia's Aral Sea, once so large you could fit a hundred Singapores into it, has shrunk to 10 per cent of its original size as it has been tapped for irrigation in the last few decades. Closer to home, thousands of dead pigs have been fished out of the Huangpu River near Shanghai, casualties of a mystery porcine epidemic.
The onus is on the world's governments to achieve the goal of food, water and energy security - that is, maintaining people's access to these during major shocks to the system, such as droughts, heatwaves and so on.
Technologies that point to future solutions treat food, water and energy as linked components of a system. They aim to cut consumption or wastage of these resources, reducing dependence on them by adapting their processes and incorporating advancements.
Gulf nation Qatar relies on desalination for most of its water. But its huge natural gas and chemicals industry requires water for cooling and steam. So plants like Shell's gas-to-liquids plant, which converts natural gas into synthetic fuels and lubricants, recycle almost all of their water so that they don't further strain the nation's resources.
Shell does this at its other water-scarce sites, too. At its fuel refinery in Geelung, Australia, it has a plant on-site to treat and recycle water from both the refinery and the local community.
To counter the strain on resources in the production of food and water, by-products of some parts of the process are being harnessed too.
Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore chairman Edwin Khew pointed out that there are new ways to tap waste. "We can produce energy and compost from the waste generated by the processes that produce water, waste water and food," he said.
Another way countries can ensure water and food security is through international trade.
Water-scarce Singapore and Malaysia import grains and meats that take a lot of water to produce, while at the same time exporting non-agricultural manufactured goods, wrote water policy expert Jenny Kehl in a Yale Global commentary last month.
Even so, producing its own food is one prong of Singapore's food security strategy. It wants to grow 10 per cent of the leafy vegetables it consumes, up from about 7 per cent now. One of the most efficient ways of delivering food and water, and meeting other human needs is well-planned urban development, said Dr Balakrishnan.
Ms Ruth Cairnie, Royal Dutch Shell's executive vice-president of strategy and planning, highlighted Singapore's compact design and focus on resource efficiency as an example of good planning when she spoke at Singapore International Energy Week last year.
With three-quarters of the world's population set to live in cities by 2050, that could take some stress off food, water and energy supplies for Singapore and for the world's growing billions.