Drought at Barrios de Luna Reservoir, Spain. ©Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

How fossil fuels leave people and the planet "dry"

This year we celebrated March 22 - World Water Day - through the prism of the relationship between water and climate change. Water scarcity is compounded by the effects of climate change. This is a problem that is gradually becoming a significant factor in the survival of the fossil fuel industry - paradoxically, as this sector is one of the main drivers of the problem of water scarcity and is strongly influenced by it.


At a time when basic hygiene (such as hand washing) is extremely important and can even be life-saving, it is necessary to remember that there are people and communities suffering from water scarcity. Difficult access to clean water should be considered a prerequisite for health risks. In the fight against the COVID-19 health crisis, it is also important to pay attention to the global water crisis. The inability to wash your hands during a pandemic is already a tragedy for many communities. Ignoring the problem of depletion of water resources can make this a daily life for many more people. There are alternatives to fossil fuels. But water has no alternative.

Basic facts about water


  • ● World water demand has been increasing at 1% per year since 1980, with consumption expected to increase by 20 to 30% above current levels by 2050.
  • ● 3 out of 10 people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water.
  • ● 17 countries - home to 1/4 of the population - have extreme water shortages.
  • ● 25% of the world's population is facing a water crisis.
  • ● More than 2 billion people live in countries at high risk of water scarcity today.
  • ● About 4 billion people worldwide suffer from water shortages for at least a month a year. That number is expected to grow from 4,8 to 5,7 billion by 2050. This creates unprecedented competition among water consumers because 60% of fresh water comes from river basins located in more than one country.
  • ● By 2040, almost 600 million children under the age of 18, ie. 1 out of 4 will live in areas that are at extremely high risk of water scarcity.
  • ● In 8 out of 10 households, mostly women and girls are responsible for obtaining water in cases when access to water is outside the home.
  • ● Over 68 million people (2017) were forced to flee their homes and faced extreme difficulties in finding drinking water.
  • ● In Bulgaria, 90% of the capacity of coal-fired power plants is concentrated in areas critically endangered by water shortages. You can read more about the "water for life" or "water for coal" dilemma here.
    7 power plants with a total capacity of about 4 GW, operating at an average load of about 42%, use 30.4 million cubic meters of water per year.

This amount equals the basic water needs of 832 thousand people in one year, if a person is given 100 liters a day.


Fresh water is a valuable but limited resource necessary for the survival of humans and all terrestrial life forms on Earth. However, we are witnessing a global water crisis, and one of the main culprits is the fossil fuel industry. For centuries, the business model of this industry puts water supplies and human health at risk.


The fossil fuel industry is the biggest contributor to climate change. It also contributes most to increasing the risks to water resources related to climate change. Rising temperatures, stronger and more frequent droughts, floods and storms, melting ice and rising sea levels threaten the water supplies people rely on to produce food, drinking water and hygiene. But urgent action on climate and water scarcity is often hampered by industry and the economic and political instruments at its disposal.


In addition, the energy sector, which relies on fossil fuels, is also one of the sectors that use the most intensive water. He gets huge amounts of water to produce fuel and energy. The flow of used water is then fed back into the ecosystem (the so-called discharge), causing thermal pollution (increasing the temperature of the water body into which the water returns). During the combustion of fuel and the formation of combustion products, moisture is released, which is released into the atmosphere - these processes lead to loss of water ("consumption").


Through these two conditional actions, fossil fuels take more water from the system than they return. This leads to loss of water in the environment. Where water is scarce, competition between the energy sector, agriculture and drinking water needs is inevitable. In fact, agriculture is the largest consumer of fresh water - 70% of the water produced goes to agriculture, and in low-income countries, that share reaches up to 90%. fossil fuels, agriculture often loses the battle.

Map of risk regions in Bulgaria
© World Resources Institute.png


Last but not least, coal, fossil gas and oil can all cause toxic pollution of water, further increasing the risk to clean and safe water supplies. In many cases, fossil fuel companies do not take appropriate precautions, partly due to lack of regulation, or clean up slowly or insufficiently. Thus, the environmental impact of pollution can hardly be stopped.


In conclusion, the deterioration of freshwater resources due to the production of fossil fuel energy far exceeds the depletion of water as an available resource and also poses additional risks for both climate and pollution. The growing water crisis underscores the importance of water for human health and survival and the need to remove fossil fuel energy from the consumer menu.

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Climate change caused by fossil fuels and water supplies


A special report by the United Nations Expert Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1,5 ° C shows that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions should halved by 2030 before dropping to zero by 2050 at the latest. Exceeding the 1,5 ° C peak point can deplete masses of water, as rising temperatures get stronger and -common droughts, floods and storms, melting ice and rising here at sea level can damage fresh water supplies. Climate change is therefore a key driver for changing the access and use of water by humanity.


As climate change increases the intensity and duration of droughts, increasing water insecurity may escalate regional competition for water control. This can be a deciding factor for the prosperity or decline of a region.


Despite the urgent need for action, in response to the effects of climate change, emissions from all fossil fuels continue to increase in 2018. Coal-fired power plants are the only contributor to the growth of CO2 emissions observed in 2018. in the world. Coal electricity production alone accounts for the huge 30% of all global CO2-related energy production.

Production of fossil fuels and water supplies


In places where water supplies are scarce, fossil fuel companies are further exacerbating water depletion and jeopardizing agriculture and other sectors, as well as households and consumers of the same water source. A recent study on the use of water by electricity generation technologies shows that fossil fuel production itself already consumes large amounts of water for each megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity produced. Shale and tar sands and conventional oil are the largest consumers of water with more than 890 to 1600 liters per megawatt hour, and coal ranked third with over 230 liters per megawatt hour.


Type of fuel

Use of water


Oil - tar sands and shale

1658 liters / MWh


Oil - conventional

891 liters / MWh


231 liters / MWh

Shale gas

222 liters / MWh

Carbon methane

70 liters / MWh

Natural gas - conventional

60 liters / MWh

Ð ~ Ð · Ñ, Ð ¾ Ñ ‡ Ð ½ Ð ¸ Ð º: "Utilizing Water for Electric Technology": Global Meta-Analysis, 2019


Although coal energy production is not the largest consumer of water at the production stage (for coal and lignite coal consumption is only about 16%), the volume of water consumed sharply increases at the stage of electricity production in the TPP - on average 2 076 liters per megawatt hour worldwide. As of 2013, the total consumption of water from the coal industry is estimated at 22,7 billion cubic meters. In high-risk areas, coal plants consume millions of cubic meters of water.


During the dry summer months, this may create a conflict between smallholder farmers and coal plants for the sharing of available water. For example, the driest continent in the world, Australia, faces the onset of the water crisis, but at the same time allows the coal industry to continue to deplete local reserves. Coal plants consume most of the water extracted from the coal sector (90%). For example, a 500 MW power plant using one-off cooling water produces an amount of water every 3 minutes, which is approximately equal to the drainage of an Olympic size pool. As of 2013, the total amount of fresh water produced by the global coal industry amounts to 281 billion cubic meters. In practice, the global coal industry uses an amount of water annually that would meet the needs of 7 to 15 billion people a year.


Fossil fuel pollution and water supplies


Coal contains a long list of toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are released into the environment at all stages of their life cycle: from extraction through processing to the combustion and storage of waste materials. For example, for each tonne of coal extracted, between 1 and 2,5 cubic meters of groundwater is consumed. Coal mines can also cause long-term damage to rivers and groundwater bodies and continue to leak acids, even after closure. Coal ash - a toxic mixture of liquid and solid waste products generated by burning coal - causes some of the worst environmental spills in the world.


Landfills for combustion waste such as slag and others that are not well fenced or located in areas of high flood risk can cause environmental pollution, since leakage can be mixed with leakage. air, water and soil. In the US alone, more than 95% of these landfills are not adequately fenced. Accordingly, many plants pollute groundwater to a degree exceeding federal safety standards for toxic chemicals.


Multiple cases prove that coal pollution can cause real health problems. Coal ash contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, boron and other toxic components known to cause brain development in children, or cancer, neurological, respiratory and cardiac problems. Landfills that store this type of waste can ruin homes and sometimes lead to illness and death for people in close contact.


Oil spills and leaks are the major contributors to the deterioration of the water quality caused by fossil fuels due to the widespread storage, transportation and use of petroleum products.


Oil and gas fracking byproducts, namely toxic wastewater, are often pumped into retention ponds before being “dumped” deep underground, where there may be leakage to other groundwater and reservoirs, possibly contaminating drinking water for millions of people.


A future without water


Today, 25% of the world's population is at risk of a water crisis. More than double the increase to 2025% is expected by 60. By 2040, every fourth child in the world - about 600 million - is expected to live in areas with an extremely high risk of water scarcity.


When vital resources such as water decrease, the risk of conflict increases. The Chaos Map of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) shows 1300 deaths from violent social unrest and suicides related to situations of insecurity about access to water, food and fuels between 2005 and 2017 During the study period, water conflicts - mainly related to the control of water infrastructure - caused more deaths than insecurity from access to food and fuels, according to Aled Jones, director of the ARU Global Institute for Sustainability.


Water - Food - Energy (and Climate)


According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), water, energy and food security are highly interconnected. For people's well-being, poverty reduction and sustainable development, good interaction between the three sectors is needed. Given the global population of nearly 8 billion people, basic services - including the provision of water, energy and food - are endangered.


By 2050, the demand for fresh water, energy and food is expected to increase by 40, 50 and 60% respectively. As the intensity and frequency of droughts, storms and floods increase, climate change threatens the supply of fresh water, energy and food production, ie. the functioning of the whole system. Air, water and soil pollution due to the production of fossil fuel energy further threatens access to water and food.

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State of water resources in coal-fired areas in Europe


An unpublished Greenpeace analysis examines the production and consumption of water from 225 lignite and other coal-fired power plants in Europe, with an electrical power greater than 50 megawatts (MW). The examples considered have a total power of about 157 gigawatts (GW). More than half of the plants (124) are located in areas of Europe that are already at high risk of water scarcity. The effects of climate change, such as heat waves and droughts, can exacerbate water scarcity and put sectors such as coal-fired electricity and agriculture in a state of emergency.

In Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Turkey, 225 of the 29 power plants are located in areas with an extremely high risk of water scarcity. For example, in Bulgaria, over 90% of the capacity of coal-fired TPPs is located in such areas. These are the West Aegean region with the center of Blagoevgrad, where the TPP “Respublika” and the TPP “Bobov dol” are located, and the East Aegean region with the center of Plovdiv, where the Maritza East complex - TPP “Brikel” is located, AES Maritza East 1, the state-owned Maritza East 2 and the KonturGlobal Maritza East 3.


These 7 power plants with a total capacity of about 4 GW, operating at an average load of about 42%, use 30,4 million cubic meters of water per year. This amount equals the basic water needs of 832 thousand people in one year, if a person is given 100 liters a day. For comparison, with the allocated amounts of water according to the monthly schedule for March 2020 and predicted in the annual schedule, the total amount of drinking water for Pernik is only 1,2 million cubic meters since the middle of March.


In the context of the water crisis in the Pernik region that grew last year, it became clear that power plants such as the Republic and Bobov Dol exceed their permitted water volumes from the Studena and Dyakovo dams. Such violations were last detected in February this year. Source


You can read more about the water or coal water dilemma here.


Each year, the average consumption of water from the 29 power plants in Europe is 84,2 million cubic meters and their production is up to 657 million cubic meters. 84,2 million cubic meters - a year that equates to basic water needs of 2,3 million people.


In Germany, Spain, Kosovo, Poland, Romania and Turkey, another 45 power plants are located in high-risk regions. Each year, the average water consumption of the plants is about 239 million cubic meters, and the production is about 1,7 billion cubic meters.


Finally, 50 power plants are located in medium-high-risk water scarcity areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Northern Macedonia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Turkey and the United Kingdom.


The average water consumption of 225 power plants combined amounts to over 900 million cubic meters, which equals the annual baseline water demand of 24,8 million people.


Germany, Poland and Turkey occupy the top three places with the highest consumption of water from coal-fired power plants, representing 66% of all water consumed by European coal-fired power plants.


Level of risk of water shortage

Number of TPPs

Power in MW

Average water consumption per million m3 per year

Average water production per million m3 per year

Extremely high (> 80%)





High (40-80%)





Medium to High (20-40%)





Low to High (10-20%)





Low (<10%)





No data











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