The Rise of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

November 30, 2018 | Water in the West | Insights

Water, food, and energy are the most basic human needs and share a strong connection. Water is used to grow crops, drive hydropower generation, cool down thermoelectric power plants (generally fueled by coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission), and extract fossil fuels (e.g. through hydrofracking). Energy is required to extract groundwater, transport water resources where they are needed, treat wastewater, run desalination plants, plow and harvest fields, and refrigerate and transport harvested crops. Moreover, with the rise of biofuels, some crops are grown directly for energy generation, leading to important implications for water use and food prices. The strength of the links between water, energy, and food in a given region is affected by the relative abundance of the three resources, population density, and economic development of local communities.

Shortages in any of these three resources can cause severe monetary losses and even deaths in extreme circumstances. However, water resources are often the most problematic of the three for two key reasons: 1) water availability is largely determined by climate variability, and 2) we cannot transport water efficiently. While we have developed advanced weather and seasonal forecasts to anticipate water availability, we have ultimately very limited control on how much precipitation falls in a given year. Furthermore, we have trade networks and electricity grids that allow us to efficiently transport food and energy within and across continents, but water resources remain largely local to individual river basins. We can build infrastructure to transport water from one basin to another (e.g. the California State Water Project) but these projects are complex and expensive, limiting their proliferation and the distance that they can cover.

Given the variability and regional constraints on water resources, the need to efficiently allocate water across sectors using a systems-approach is clear. However, the two dominant systems frameworks for organizing the relationship between food, energy, and water vary widely in terms of benefits and limitations.


Integrated Water Resources Management

The efficiency of water resources management has historically varied from river basin to river basin. In an effort to set international standards for best practices regarding holistic water management and planning, an international community of water practitioners developed the framework of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). In January of 1992, the UN-sponsored International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin, Ireland resulted in the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. This statement highlighted the finite nature of freshwater resources, the need to involve stakeholders at multiple levels in development and planning efforts, the key role that women play in water management, and the importance of treating water as an economic good. Later that year, heads of states from nations around the world met at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro which resulted in Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for sustainable development. Chapter 18, “Protection of The Quality and Supply of Freshwater Resources: Application of Integrated Approaches to The Development, Management and Use of Water Resources,” outlined the key principles of what has become IWRM. The water community has since developed many support tools and materials for water managers to follow the IWRM framework.


Rise of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Despite the widespread acceptance of IWRM, the term “Water-Energy-Food Nexus” appeared in academic publications at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and in a book published by the World Economic Forum in 2011 titled Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus. This new field, however, did not originate from the water management community.  Rather, it was put forth by researchers in energy, agriculture, water resources (beyond water management), and environmental sciences who were also interested in exploring the connections between sectors, in particular with regards to energy. The IWRM framework outlined in Agenda 21 placed special emphasis on agriculture and land-use but did not mention energy explicitly. More recent IWRM publications do include energy topics but, unsurprisingly, examine energy issues solely from the perspective of water management.

One of the first sets of academic publications that used the term Water-Energy-Food Nexus highlighted the Water-Energy link by focusing on topics related to hydropower, energy prices, and the impacts of biofuels policies on water resources and agriculture. Another early study published in the Energy Policy journal argued for the need for integrated models of water, energy, and food resources. This study presented an example of a model developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency that combined energy systems, climate drivers, water resources, and agriculture and land-use. Thus, while water practitioners may see a large overlap between IWRM and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, the latter resulted from the interdisciplinary drive of researchers from a wide range of fields to develop an integrated approach with a more equal balance across sectors. The strong drive from the energy community in particular may explain why national laboratories in the United States, which have a historical expertise on energy topics, are some of the principal contributors of Water-Energy-Food Nexus research in the country.


Benefits and Challenges

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus community has grown tremendously in the last decade to encompass practitioners and researchers from a range of environmental sciences, engineering, and the social sciences who specialize in water, energy, food, climate, land-use, and sustainability topics. As a result of this diversity of disciplines, researchers have proposed a wide range of methodologies to study the Water-Energy-Food Nexus depending on the tools that are common in their respective fields. The rise of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus field has encouraged more collaboration between a wider set of academics and decisionmakers. In addition, funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, have increased their support for interdisciplinary research in these topics, driving conceptual and technological innovation regarding sustainable resources management.  

However, the disperse nature of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus community also leads to important challenges. IWRM was developed with concrete applications to water resources management and planning in mind. In contrast, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus developed more “organically,” without the backing of a particular community, institution or organization; and without a specific target audience. If the eventual goal of the community is to develop solutions for holistic management and planning of water, energy, and food resources; the community will have to accomplish at least four tasks:

  1. pose well-defined policy-relevant questions at actionable scales;
  2. identify problem archetypes (e.g. impacts of biofuels policies, reservoir operations, groundwater extraction, etc.);
  3. share best practices for stakeholder engagement for each type of problem archetype; and
  4. identify tools and modeling frameworks that are most appropriate for tackling policy-relevant questions for each type of problem archetype.

By achieving these tasks, the community can organize around common issues of management and planning of water, energy, and food resources; and develop tools together with target users to help them in their decision-making process.

The rise of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus has democratized the conversation of holistic resources management by bringing together different communities and giving them equal weight. However, the recently formed Water-Energy-Food Nexus community will need to consciously organize itself if it wants to scale up its ability to translate science to action beyond individual case-studies. This is a challenging task given the diversity of disciplines involved and will likely require the leadership of an international organization or coalition to drive the agenda. Looking forward, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus community can learn from the processes that organized the water resources management community behind IWRM.