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Solar energy can reduce water pollution in South Asia

Increased use of solar power is one way to significantly diminish water pollution caused by coal- and oil-fired power plantsWastewater from thermal power plants contains high amounts of toxic chemicals (Photo by Casper Ohm)

Wastewater from coal-fired power plants contains high amounts of toxic chemicals (Photo by Casper Ohm)

The rapid urbanisation in South Asia ushered in a wave of prosperity. It brought in technological innovation, created job opportunities and improved the lives of many people. However, as the population grew and got wealthier, so did the demand for energy sources to support this growth.

Consequently, the region’s primarily fossil-based energy sector has contributed to an ever-increasing environmental degradation, particularly water pollution. Luckily, a sunny star might be the answer to a brighter forecast.

Solar power — a natural, inexhaustible and clean source of energy — has experienced a tremendous rise in importance and could pave the way to significantly diminish water pollution caused by traditional energy sources.

Although great strides have been made in promoting renewable energy sources over the last few years, fossil-based fuels still remain as the predominant source of energy for generating electricity worldwide, and in India.

Power plants in Asia account for approximately 37% of the global electricity generation, with 64% of them coming from coal. In India, for example, 85% of the country’s thermal power generation is still coal-based.

Aside from the copious amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere every year, these power stations require vast amounts of water for process-related needs and to cool down the system. Wastewater from production contains tons of toxic metals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic, which is usually pumped back into the groundwater, thus polluting local rivers, fishing areas, and potable water.

Threat from water pollution

Water pollution is one of the major threats to public health in South Asia. In Afghanistan, for instance, 80% of drinking water is polluted. Waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis kill over 100,000 people — half of them children — in Pakistan and close to 200,000 people in India every year.

Apart from air and water pollution, power plants are also responsible for dumping hazardous waste in abandoned mining sites and landfills. The solid waste eventually finds its way into the countries’ waterways and agricultural fields.

Unlike conventional energy sources, solar power generates clean and sustainable electricity without toxic pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Solar energy, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) panel cells, requires neither water nor the combustion of fossil fuels in order to generate electricity.

Another pressing issue with fossil fuels is their non-renewability and finitude. Sooner or later they will be exhausted or extremely expensive to obtain, a particular challenge for less wealthy nations. Solar energy, on the other hand, is getting cheaper and the most abundant energy resource available.

In just one hour, the Earth receives more solar energy than what all of humanity consumes in an entire year. Therefore, the environmental impact caused by a switch to this kind of renewable energy, especially when it comes to reducing water pollution, would be substantial. And considering these countries are blessed by countless hours of sunlight, it would be a waste not to harness all this energy.

Moreover, nations like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh constantly struggle with acute water shortages due to droughts, growth in population, and demand for electricity. Switching to solar energy would go a long way to mitigating the water scarcity crisis.

Minimal environmental footprint

However, there are a few downsides to solar energy. While the power generated from solar panels is emission-free, their manufacturing process does involve some harmful pollutants, like sulphur hexafluoride. Yet, the environmental impact is minimal when compared to fossil fuels.

An additional challenge is that solar panels require a significant amount of space in order to meet energy requirements. For residential installations, a roof will suffice, but for larger-scale demands where manufacturing occurs, lack of space is an impediment to making the switch.

Despite the idea that solar energy is expensive, gone are the days when the cost of solar electricity was high. According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), in most major countries, solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity. The technology has now become more affordable than coal and gas.

In India, solar power is a fast developing industry. Thanks to government policies and the decline in costs of solar modules, the solar power market is expected to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of more than 40% in the next five years.

In 2019, the country installed 7.3 GW of solar power across its territory, establishing its position as the third-largest solar market in the world.

Way ahead

Generating electricity from renewable energy sources such as the sun can help mitigate the water pollution issue in South Asian countries like India. However, as powerful as the sun is, it cannot tackle this problem by itself. There are many other factors, such as the absence of sewage control, intensive agriculture and improper garbage disposal that need to be addressed as well.

The good news is, through baby steps, the country, which has the largest population affected by water pollution, is on its way to decarbonise the energy sector, take full advantage of its immense solar energy potential and ensure a cleaner future for billions of its citizens.

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