In an ironic footnote to a devastating global cycle—wherein the burning of fossil fuels drives climate change, resulting in extreme new weather patterns that impact millions worldwide—a new study released Monday finds that United States' oil demand is depleting freshwater supplies in water-scarce regions across Asia and the Middle East.
At the intersection of energy policy and international trade, this growing crisis heretofore has evaded scrutiny but the report (pdf), published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), examines how the world's richest nations' reliance on fossil fuels is exacerbating freshwater depletion in developing nations.
"There is an increasing understanding that international trade in natural resources, driven by rising national wealth and the opening up of commodity markets since the 1980s, has led to a disconnect between final consumption of goods and production activities," the report states.
"Findings in the present study can be placed within an emerging body of literature that suggests an imbalance in the use of natural resources with exchanges between developed and less-developed countries having become increasingly ecologically unequal," it continues.
Led by Dr. Robert Alan Holland, an ecologist and conservation scientist at the UK's University of Southampton, the researchers used joint models of trade and environmental factors to examine pressure on freshwater resources associated with three energy sectors (oil or petroleum, gas, and electricity) across the global economy. The study considers the water usage "along the complete supply chain from extraction and conversion of raw material through to generation of power."
While consumption associated with gas and electricity production is largely confined within the country where the demand originates, the impact of oil production varies widely. "For example, although the United States and China have similar demand associated with the petroleum sector, international freshwater consumption is three times higher for the former than the latter," reads the study.
For the U.S., the oil sector is having a significant impact on international freshwater supplies, particularly in the Middle East, which has become increasingly subject to punishing droughts and spiking heatwaves. According to the study, 29 percent of the sector's freshwater supplies come from western Asia, 13 percent from southern Asia, 7 percent from eastern Asia, and 6 percent from northern Africa.
The depletion of freshwater is no small thing. "Given that freshwater is central to maintain ecosystem function and biodiversity, pressures on freshwater resources can result in the loss of ecosystem services and associated benefits to society, ultimately impacting human wellbeing," the report warns.
Further analysis reveals that the majority—76 percent—of the freshwater consumed by the oil sector is used for industrial crop production that subsequently flows to energy sectors, such as biofuels. "Given rising populations and the critical interdependence of freshwater, food, and energy demand, our work examines an important threat for global freshwater resources that has not previously been considered in detail," the researchers state.
The problem with this "growing geographic disconnect between consumption of goods, the extraction and processing of resources, and the environmental impacts associated with production activities," is that it complicates the design of policy. While most developed countries have taken steps to improve freshwater management and conservation within their borders, the researchers note that international impacts are rarely considered.
"The growing geographic disconnect between consumption of goods, the extraction and processing of resources, and the environmental impacts associated with production activities makes it crucial to factor global trade into sustainability assessments."