The Food-Energy-Water Nexus

by Dr. Noureddin Driouech (ELP 2012), Italy

Some of the biggest challenges the world is facing hinge on the growing scarcity and allocation of resources vital to sustaining life – water, energy and food. Food, water and energy security are finally being recognized as the most important national and international security issues.

To produce enough food to support a growing population, we need more water and energy. Producing energy requires water to cool power plants and produce biofuel, while making water accessible and clean for human consumption demands energy. According to UN estimates, by 2030 we will need 30% more water, 45% more energy and 60% more food.

Understanding the complex relationship between water, energy and food systems has become critically important to the development of a sustainable and secure future for all nations and regions. This was clearly highlighted at the Bonn 2011 Nexus Conference held in preparation for the United Nations (UN) Rio +20 Conference. The conference highlighted the importance of addressing sustainability issues in the closely related sectors of water, energy and food security.

This was also a central lesson that emerged from last year’s observance of the International Year for Water Cooperation. The relationship between water, energy and food security demonstrate how deep the inter-linkages are between these systems. At heart of the relationship is the interdependence of resources - how demand for one resource can drive demand for another one. Similarly, how the cost of one resource can determine the efficiency of production of others.

In addition, it is well recognized that efforts to address only one part of a systemic problem by neglecting other inherently inter-linked aspects may not lead to desirable and sustainable outcomes. With this perspective, for an increasing number of nations, policy decision-making requires a nexus approach that reduces tradeoffs and builds synergies across sectors, and helps to reduce costs and increase benefits for humans and nature in contrast to independent approaches to the management of water, energy, food and the environment (Figure 1).

Image iconFAO-Nexus-Approach-1-copia_2.jpg Figure 1: The FAO approach to the Water-Energy-Food Nexus (Source: FAO, 2014)

There are many synergies and tradeoffs between water, energy use and food production. One example is the use of water to irrigate crops which might promote food production but it can also reduce river flow and hydropower potential. Growing bio-energy crops under irrigated agriculture can increase overall water withdrawals and jeopardize food security. Converting surface irrigation into high efficiency pressurized irrigation may save water but may also result in higher energy use. Recognizing these synergies and balancing these tradeoffs is central to jointly ensuring the availability of water, energy and food.

In this regard , the question to be raised concerning the water-energy-food nexus is where are we now? This will bring us to several crucial questions including the following:

  • Nexus thinking has been around for a while now, but is it really integrated enough yet?
  • Do we have enough data points to catalyze action?
  • How are organizations tackling interconnected resource challenges and what concrete examples of scenario planning collaboration or programs in place?
  • Could the move towards valuing natural capital help accelerate nexus thinking and policy making?

Work on what is being termed the water-energy-food nexus is starting, but much still needs to be learned and accomplished regarding increasing efficiency, reducing tradeoffs and building synergies across sectors. This calls for joint global responsibility and cooperation among users, scientists and policy makers. Understanding the nexus and the setup of an appropriate nexus approach is essential to develop policies, strategies and investments to exploit synergies and mitigate tradeoffs among water energy and food systems.

In line with this approach, a research team of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari-Italy(CIHEAM–MAIB) started many research and cooperation activities last year dealing with issues on water-energy-food security. In particular, it has recently launched a stakeholder’s open consultation on nexus in the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries in order to pave the way for the establishment of the “Mediterranean Nexus Network”. The stakeholder consultation is in progress and the preliminary outcomes are expected to be available later in 2015.