Study confirms: burning coal in Bulgaria causes water stress
The coal-power energy sector is using enormous amounts of fresh water which is projected to negatively affect lives and the ecological balance of the surrounding region. This is the conclusion of the new report The Unquenchable Thirst of Energy Production, published by Greenpeace Bulgaria and Leiden University’s Institute of Environmental Sciences.
The study was conducted by Leiden environmental scientists Xiaochen Liu, José Mogollón, Valerio Barbarossa, Paul Behrens, and Ranran Wang. The team used innovative scientific state-of-the-art hydrology and water resource modelling, which combines different climate change scenarios and energy generation.
The report predicts future impacts on the waters of the East Maritsa basin, a region where 90% of the Bulgarian coal capacity is located, while projected to be among those most at risk from climate change in Europe. The study exposes a deep link between water use, energy generation, and climate change.
Use of coal threatens ecosystems
The official National Energy and Climate Plan, which Bulgaria has submitted to the European Commission, foresees the use of coal beyond 2030. The study shows this would result in considerable pressure on the local ecosystems due to lower remaining water budgets for local consumers, agriculture and other industries.
Coal phase-out timing of high importance
Ranran Wang, an assistant professor at the CML, says: ‘Many regions are already experiencing disruptions in water availability for electricity generation due to climate change, a trend that is likely to continue. In the main branch of the Maritsa river, near-term climatic changes by 2050 reduce even further the minimal water flows in dry months.’
This indicates a high potential for droughts and lower water availability, Wang states. ‘Not just for electricity generation, but also for urban, agricultural, and industrial sectors. Relying on fossil fuels in the future will only exacerbate these trends. Our study shows that the timing of the coal energy phase-out is the most significant policy decision in this regard.’
Not enough drinking water
With around 40% of its electricity coming from coal, Bulgaria is one of the EU countries most heavily reliant on this dirty fossil fuel, with no foreseeable coal phase-out date. Other coal-addicted countries in Europe are also experiencing struggles for water. For example, the Polish Turow coal mine is a threat to drinking water for thousands of Czech people. Not only do taps and wells often lack water, but mines and plants become the sources of water pollution, as the previous Greenpeace Bulgaria report on the Bobov dol coal power plant proved.
Potential hazard to energy security
Meglena Antonova, Program Director of Greenpeace Bulgaria, says: ‘If Bulgaria continues down this path, beholden to the coal industry, not only will it harm the health of Bulgarians, water resources and our natural environment, it poses a potential hazard to the energy security of the country.’
‘Politicians should consult the latest science when making decisions on climate’
That’s why Antonova sees the upcoming elections in Bulgaria as a crucial moment for people to choose the right direction. ‘More frequent deadly heatwaves, droughts and floods are showing us what climate change caused by fossil fuels looks like. We need to harmonise our society with the natural world, and Bulgaria cannot afford to be laggards here, because playing catch up with progressive climate policies is a matter of life or death. The latest science, such as this report, needs to be consulted when making political decisions about climate change mitigation, adaptation to extreme weather events, and water resource management.’
Predicting future developments with science
Assistant professor Valerio Barbarossa is one of the authors of the report and one of the leaders in climate modelling science. He says: ‘Electricity generation will continue to have significant and potentially increasing impacts on aquatic ecosystems as the world warms. We have the tools, such as the hydrological modelling, to understand the sophisticated relations among energy production, climate change, water and ecosystem health and predict future developments. Decision-makers can use that valuable knowledge to plan for the resilient future of communities, especially in regions such as the Maritsa River basin.’
Header image: Ovcharitsa water reservoir and the Thermal Power Plant Maritsa East 2 in the distance.
The article is based on a press release by Greenpeace Bulgaria.