How can we avert water wars as we decarbonize?

Michael Webber on the best ways to avoid replacing a carbon problem with a water problem.

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On the Catalyst with Shayle Kann podcast this week:

We designed our power plants, refineries and other energy infrastructure to depend on water. But not just any kind of water — water that’s available at the right quantity, quality, place and time. When water falls outside of this Goldilocks zone, energy systems can unravel, sometimes in unexpected ways. Low water levels strain hydroelectric and thermal power production and restrict coal shipments by river. Extreme cold freezes water in fossil-gas infrastructure, causing blackouts. 

The irony is that the energy system fuels climate change, which in turn causes water problems for the energy system. 

So how do we address these vulnerabilities as we decarbonize? And how can we build a resilient water-energy system in an increasingly chaotic climate?

In this episode, Shayle talks to Michael Webber, author of the book Thirst for Power: Energy, Water and Human Survival. He’s a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin and chief technology officer at Energy Impact Partners, where Shayle is a partner. 

They cover topics including:

  • The surprising places we use water for energy applications, such as extracting minerals and fossil gas, growing crops for biofuels and sequestering carbon.
  • The ways energy improves the quantity and quality of water, allowing us to move water across longer distances, reach deeper wells and desalinate water.
  • How to avoid exacerbating water problems as we decarbonize.
  • Whether cheap, abundant electricity from nuclear fusion will power widespread desalination.
  • Why the data on water systems is so scarce compared to that for energy systems.
  • How prescient the new Mad Max water-war movies are.


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