We know how important food, water and energy are to our daily lives, but what happens when we fail to value them as critical, interconnected resources for our economy?
In the summer of 2012, the U.S. was affected by one of the worst droughts in recent decades. Eighty percent of U.S. farms and ranches were affected, crop losses exceeded $20 billion and unforeseen ripple effects followed.
With corn crops withering from the lack of rainfall, prices for food and livestock feed supplies rose, as did ethanol, predominantly sourced from corn. Numerous power plants had to scale back operations or even shut down because the water temperatures of many rivers, lakes and estuaries had increased to the point where they could not be used for cooling. Household, municipal and farm wells in the Midwest had to be extended deeper into rapidly depleting aquifers to make up for the lack of rainfall, draining groundwater supplies and demanding more electricity to run the pumps. It is estimated that consumers will feel these ripple effects for years to come -- over the next year alone, this impact could result in personal costs up to $50 billion.
Now more than ever, our infrastructure is built on an interlinked system for the production and use of energy, water and food. Water is needed for almost all forms of energy production and power generation, energy is required to treat and transport water, and both water and energy are needed to produce food.
This interconnection, or energy-water-food nexus, underscores the global challenges that we face as a society. The growing global population, increased wealth and urbanization will continue to stress energy, water and food supplies. Climate change and unsustainable development practices will exacerbate them. In preparing for a population that could top 10 billion by 2050, according to U.N. estimates, in the next 15 to 20 years alone we will need 30 percent more water, 45 percent more energy and 50 percent more food.
Conservation International’s Business & Sustainability Council (PDF) examined the corporate risk and opportunities related to the energy-water-food nexus. The nexus is still new in the minds of many corporations, but CI sees several examples of companies broadening their strategies to build synergistic solutions.
Shell shines the spotlight on the pressures from the energy-water-food stress nexus in its 2013 report, "The New Lens Scenario." The company is using scenario planning to test and collaborate on the design of synergistic solutions to tackle these interlinked resource constraints. In British Columbia, Shell collaborated with the city of Dawson Creek to build a reclaimed water facility that virtually eliminated its need to draw on local freshwater sources for the operation of a natural gas venture. It also worked with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the University of Utrecht to develop a new methodology that could more accurately estimate the amount of water needed to generate energy from different sources -- oil, gas, coal, nuclear and biofuels -- using different technologies and in different locations.
In Kern County, about 100 miles from Los Angeles and home to Chevron’s largest California oil field, Chevron partnered with the Cawelo Water District to provide much needed water to local farmers for agricultural use. Water is a significant byproduct from steam flooding, a technology employed to extract thick, viscous oil out of the ground. For every barrel of oil, 10 barrels of water are produced, about 700,000 gallons per day. Chevron reclaims about one-third to generate new steam, and provides most of the remaining treated water to the Cawelo Water District to distribute to 160 farmers to irrigate 45,000 acres of crops, such as almonds, grapes, pistachios and citrus. This innovative solution is critical to creating a more sustainable local water supply and helping Kern County growers keep agriculture thriving in the region.
Since 2005, The Coca-Cola Company has set an ambitious water security commitment for its beverages and operations. In order to meet its goal, it implemented a series of technical and natural solutions in nearly 400 community water projects in more than 90 countries. These community water partnerships include rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, agricultural water efficiency improvements and protecting watersheds. The company has taken an even broader perspective, enhancing the ability of watersheds to absorb threats associated with the uncertainties around climate change, and increased demands for water, energy and food from a burgeoning population.
Ensuring energy, water and food security on a global level requires equal consideration of the interdependency among all three systems and the underlying natural capital that supports them.
CI believes that addressing the stress nexus requires collaboration among government, business and civil society. Public-private partnerships offer an innovative way to leverage expertise and financing in order to pilot practical, scalable and collaborative solutions. The Sustainable Landscape Partnership being piloted in Indonesia with support from CI, USAID and the Walton Family Foundation looks to understand integrated approaches to build local economies while reducing deforestation and ensuring food and water security.
Lack of data specific to the nexus is currently a limiting factor in building solutions. Improved frameworks to price natural resources such as water will be critical -- one reason CI is engaged with WAVES and the TEEB for Business Coalition. CI is also piloting a game-changing monitoring system called Vital Signs in Africa to provide near real-time ecological and social data and diagnostic tools to guide agricultural development decisions and monitor their outcomes. As we continue to pilot models that demonstrate resiliency of landscapes, open platforms for information sharing will generate innovations and efficiencies.
Combined together, this integrated approach will be critical to fully understanding where critical nexus interactions lie, where they are most susceptible and how we can meaningfully make better decisions, for this generation and the next.
Wheat field image by Alexandr Shevchenko via Shutterstock.