The Water-Energy-Food Nexus and Problem Mitigation

Nowadays, environmental concerns are becoming increasingly urgent. Economy and industry are closely integrated with ecology, since they not only affect natural resources, but are dependent on them. Power and food industry, in particular, regularly consume large amounts of the planet’s water supply. On the other hand, energy is needed to pump groundwater, distribute water, purify or dispose of wastewater, while proper exploitation of agricultural lands helps preserve groundwater. The balance between water, energy and food industries is easily unsettled. For example, using certain agricultural technologies would make food production more efficient, but they require more energy, and consequently, more water is needed. Thus, a catch-22 situation arises: food industry benefits, but water supply is depleted.

However, a solution must be found. As the world’s population grows and the climate constantly changes, continued use of the resources at the current rate presents a threat of their utter exhaustion in the near future. Therefore, it is essential to optimize industries, so that they would increase production, at the same time reducing energy and water consumption. A lot of experts share the opinion that the key to that lies in the deep understanding of the water-energy-food nexus.

The above-mentioned nexus is vividly discussed among both economists and ecologists. It has become a subject of many scholarly articles, research projects, debates and conferences, as well as being a primary focus of many institutions throughout the world. Dr. Jack Gilron, an Israeli scientist and a valued employee of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, sees the answer to the problem of limited water resources in the increased and more efficient use of seawater. He analyses “salinity gradient power and absorptive desalination […] with respect to how they can be combined for energy and water for […] large coastal populations” (Gilron 1471-72), coming to a conclusion that “osmotic energy recovery to reduce energy costs of desalination is strongly preferable to de novo use of salinity gradient osmotic processes to generate power” (Gilron 1477). Moreover, Gilron proposes a way to save energy used for temperature control of buildings and vehicles, combining it with the necessary process of seawater pre-treatment: “Adsorption desalination […] is a promising desalination approach that uses waste heat and provides cooling” (1476).

Despite the narrow specialization of his research, namely energy-generating potential of seawater conversion into freshwater, Gilron also briefly dwells upon more general concerns about the interrelation of energy and water, such as the risk of spilling liquid fossil fuels during transfer. According to Gilron, “Since transport of electricity tends to have lower environmental risks than transport of fuels, electric power generation should be encouraged close to the surface of the fuel” (1471). In addition to that, although the sphere of food production is not included into the subject matter of his article, he mentions that overuse of water supply in the energy generation leads to its deficit in the food industry, which can have devastating results (Gilron 1471). In this way, the importance of reducing water – especially freshwater – consumption in the process of producing energy is emphasised. Another issue is that of global warming, to a large extent caused by the continued use of fossil fuel as the primary source of energy. Climate changes may cause draughts, thus reducing water supply, or, on the contrary, the rise of sea level, which would contaminate groundwater reservoirs in the coastal area, increasing their salt content (Gilron 1471). In this case, the threat of global warming serves to reiterate the necessity of exploiting saltwater for energy production.

Golam Rasul and Bikash Sharma, researchers from South Asia, also raise the issue of changing climate conditions. In their study, however, climate concerns are not just mentioned in passing, but are treated as a major problem, for which the water-energy-food nexus may be the solution. They pay much attention to the food industry sector, which was left out by Gilron, whose ideas focused on seawater and are therefore of value for coastal regions. Rasul and Sharma, on the other hand, chose to base their research on the countries in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, “where large numbers of people depend on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, have limited resources and capacity, and live in climate-vulnerable settings such as mountains and coastal areas” (sec. 1, par. 3). The authors put a special emphasis on the fact that taking any action to optimize water, energy, or food production would bear fruit only if it does not affect either or both of the two other sectors. Thus, their main point is the necessity to approach the problem holistically and not view any of the sectors separately. For example, water is an integral part of energy and food industry, the same way energy is essential for producing water and food. At first glance, the latter seems to act only as a consumer of the other two sectors, but it can actually make its contribution by helping minimize water and energy expense: “Sustainable agricultural practices, such as those designed to prevent land degradation, save water and energy by increasing water storage in the soil and groundwater recharge and by reducing the use of energy-intensive fertilizers” (Rasul and Sharma sec. 2.2, par. 2). However, “agriculture consumes about 90% of the water and 20% of the total energy used in the region” (Rasul and Sharma sec. 3.3, par. 1). The tendency to produce increasingly higher quantities of energy-intensive foods, such as meat, does not help matters. Moreover, grazing adds to the land exhaustion, depleting groundwater dangerously fast.

Rasul and Sharma refer to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California as an example of replenishing the used supplies. After serving as the main provider of water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes throughout the surrounding territory, it suffered much damage as result of continued overuse. “In 2009, the government established the Delta Stewardship Council [that] established a framework and governance structure to achieve the twin goals of providing a more reliable water supply to California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem” (Rasul and Sharma sec. 4.1, par. 3). Other examples of government taking measures to preserve the integrity of water-energy-food nexus by doing damage control in time include dealing with the threat of soil erosion and subsequent loss of groundwater in Costa Rica and solving the problem of water distribution among industries in China.

Nevertheless, balancing growing global demand for water, energy, and food with climate changes can be extremely difficult if it is viewed as a local issue: “Local adaptation approaches often prove unsustainable owing to inadequate institutional support. [… Adaptation to climate change] requires comprehensive and integrated approaches, with coordination between different sectors and at different scales (local, national, and regional)” (Rasul and Sharma sec. 1, par. 4).

This opinion is supported by Villamayor-Tomas et al., who aim their research at analysing the role of institutions in the realisation of nexus approach. The value-chain analysis, provided in the course of their study, means that all aspects of different actions were considered with regard to their influence on the other elements within the nexus. This was accomplished with the help of “the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD) and the related network of action situations (NAS) concept” (736), therefore the apossible situations and proposed actions, included in the paper, are well-grounded and thought-out. Four cases were chosen as examples, all of which concern different countries with “diverse institutional settings” (Villamayor-Tomas et al. 741):

Irrigation and drinking water management is carried out at the local level in all the cases. However, Germany, India and Spain have a longer tradition of decentralised management than Kenya, which devolved that authority at the local level only recently. The energy sector is liberalized in Spain, while in Germany and India it is regulated by the central government. (Villamayor-Tomas et al. 471)

Therefore, the paper allows us to see how nexus-related issues are attended to at different levels (local and national) and introduces several institutions (e.g. Braunschweig Wastewater Association, or BWA), which help mitigate the water-energy-food problems. Another criterion for the selection of the cases was that they demonstrate different combinations of the water, energy, and food sectors of the nexus. Proposed measures, such as special treatment of wastewater, introducing water fees or quotas for irrigation, equal and just distribution of water, or investing in energy-efficient technologies, are practical and efficient.

In addition to local and national levels, the water-energy-food nexus is discussed at international conferences in great detail, as is evidenced by the UNESCAP’s discussion paper, published in 2013 by the United Nations Association of Thailand. It provides substantial theoretical background of the nexus, presents challenges and offers solutions, such as developing “new low-energy approaches in desalting seawater”, as was done by the government of Singapore (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific 41) that found a way to improving the process of desalination so that it would require less energy. Therefore, desalination, which is also the key of Gilron’s research, appears to be a promising sphere of nexus development.

UNESCAP’s paper includes examples of case studies as well, allowing to conclude that sector-based approach, which is also severely criticised by Rasul and Sharma, is indeed one of the main barriers for successfully implementing nexus solutions, along with political instability, international discord, and lack of substantial research (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific 47). To overcome these difficulties, “Long-term policy thinking should be institutionalized in the core ministries governing water, food and energy resources” (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific 50), since maintaining the nexus only at the local level would not achieve much improvement.

All in all, it is important for people and governments to preserve natural resources. Measures should be taken to address problems of water, energy, and food production not in separation, but within the nexus, paying special attention to the balance between the sectors. Deep understanding of their integration helps find the best possible solutions as to how to optimize one of the sectors without affecting another. In the face of the population growth and climate change, this could be the key to the mankind’s continued well-being.

Works Cited

Gilron, Jack. “Water-energy nexus: matching sources and uses.” Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy 16.7 (2014): 1471-79. Print.

Rasul, Golam and Bikash Sharma. The nexus approach to water-energy-food security: an option for adaptation to climate change. 2015. Web.

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Water, Food and Energy Nexus in Asia and the Pacific. Bangkok: United Nations Association of Thailand, 2013. Print.

Villamayor-Tomas, Sergio, Philipp Grundmann, Graham Epstein, Tom Evans, and Christian Kimmich. “The Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus through the Lenses of the Value Chain and the Institutional Analysis and Development Frameworks.” Water Alternatives 8.1 (2015): 735-55. Water-alternatives. Web.