The new energy-water-food nexus

The new energy-water-food nexus

Mehmet Öğütçü, Mehmet Aktaş
Our planet has to provide for the survival and prosperity of its expanding population. This is becoming an increasingly tough challenge as resources have been heavily used and the world population is rapidly multiplying.

It is a sine qua non for humanity and all countries around the world to improve water, energy and food security in view of the huge growth in the number of inhabitants of our earth, as well as an expanding and demanding middle class with changing lifestyles, needs and diets.

Despite substantial progress in many areas, human development has not really been equitable. There are more have-nots than haves: around a seventh of the world’s population does not yet have a secure food supply and has only limited access to clean water, sanitation or modern sources of energy.

About 1 billion urban slum dwellers – the so called “bottom billion” – are likely to swell to 2 billion by 2030. While in principle, services can be provided more efficiently in cities than in rural areas, urban living will lead to more resource-intensive lifestyles, as well as to consumption and waste production. 

Mega-cities, each with populations of more than 10 million people, will increase in number and should consider shifting to green and pro-poor development pathways by, among others things, reducing wastage and closing water and other material loops with their hinterlands, while extending services to the poor.

Unless there are significant changes to the ways that we produce and consume, agricultural production will have to increase by about 70 percent by 2050, while about 50 percent more primary energy has to be made available by 2035 to meet the growing demand in the world. Such increases would have far-reaching implications for water, energy and food resources, as well as for climate change. 

To deal with the complexities of keeping our planet intact and responsive to our and future generation’s needs, an effective nexus approach is needed in order also to be more “water smart,” less energy intensive, and less damaging for food production and other vital ecosystem services. 

The interactions among water, energy and food are numerous and substantial. Water is used for extraction, mining, processing, refining, residue disposal of fossil fuels, as well as for growing feedstock for biofuels and generating electricity. Water that has been used to grow feedstock for biofuels could also have been used to grow food. Water intensity varies in the energy sector, with oil and gas production requiring much less water than oil from tar sands or biofuels. 

Many forms of energy production through fossil fuels are highly polluting in addition to being water intensive, particularly extraction from tar sands and shale and extraction through hydraulic fracturing. 

Energy intensity for accessing a cubic meter of water varies; logically, accessing local surface water requires far less energy than pumping groundwater, reclaiming wastewater or desalinating seawater. Irrigation is more energy-intensive than rain-fed agriculture, and drip irrigation is more intensive yet because the water must be pressurized.

Food production is by far the largest consumer of global fresh water supplies. Globally, agriculture is responsible for an average of 70 percent of fresh water consumption by humans; in some countries, that figure jumps to 80-90 percent. Agriculture is therefore also responsible for much of the over-exploitation of fresh water.

Food production further impacts the water sector through land degradation, changes in runoff, disruption of groundwater discharge, water quality and availability of water and land for other purposes such as natural habitat. The full food and supply chain claims approximately 30 percent of total global energy demand.

Improved water, energy and food security on a global level can be achieved through a nexus approach – an approach that integrates management and governance across sectors and scales. 

So, in a nutshell, conventional policy- and decision-making in “silos” would therefore give way to an approach that reduces trade-offs and builds synergies across sectors.

This is precisely why today’s “sustainability” concept in the world remains one of the most important agenda items of the government and the business world. 

Through sustainability, we can leave our resources and a livable planet to the next generations. Sustainability goes far beyond being a choice or a voluntary act now. Collective action must be a universal responsibility and obligation at the same time.

A nexus perspective will, in the final analysis, increase the understanding of the interdependencies across the water, energy and food sectors and influence policies in other areas of concern such as climate and biodiversity. Such a perspective also helps to move beyond silos and ivory towers that preclude interdisciplinary solutions, thus increasing opportunities for mutually beneficial responses and enhancing the potential for cooperation between and among all sectors.