How to solve the biggest water-energy-food problems

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India is one of the world's biggest users of groundwater, but the aquifers that store much of its freshwater are overused, slow to replenish and rapidly depleting. That's because the country's rapidly expanding middle class has boosted its farms, which are stretching its water resources beyond capacity. The same thing is happening in energy, which uses water for cooling thermal power plants. If India doesn’t address its water challenges, it won’t be able to support its growth in both the food and energy sectors — and thus its evolution as a nation.

The country is far from alone. In China, where water distribution is woefully imbalanced, the dry desert-like north contains most of the croplands but only 16 percent of the freshwater. Natural resources are constrained throughout the nation, and the extraction activities that do take place have a big impact on groundwater and other water sources by significantly depleting them. Energy development often competes with the agriculture sector for water use.

Likewise in the United States, large-scale agriculture projects in California earn billions of dollars but also require enormous amounts of water — which, in a place such as California, is in short supply. Demands for energy development factor in here, too — with different forms of energy extraction underway across the state, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) — the natural gas extraction practice that pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and other chemicals into the ground to bust open shale formations to access the energy source inside.

Each region — and, indeed, every part of the world — is caught in the “water-energy-food-nexus.” Because the challenges are becoming increasingly interdependent, integrated solutions that involve cross-sector collaboration must be adopted. The concept is complex, but at its core, the nexus focuses on natural resource scarcity and management.

Understanding the nexus

Ultimately, “nexus thinking” means implementing integrated solutions at an ecosystem or landscape level that enhance security and sustainability in all three sectors.

The food sector part of the nexus is perhaps simplest to comprehend. Water and energy are both needed to produce food, and agriculture consumes 80 percent of water resources. As populations and prosperity increase in places such as India and China, people will demand more meat, which means a greater demand for corn and soybeans to feed animals. Some argue we’ll see a self-correction as the system implodes, taking with it populations and prosperity, but that’s not a solution — it’s a tragedy.

The interdependence between water and energy is more complex, and we might as well start in California.

The state uses 20 percent of its electricity to pump, treat and deliver water via the world's largest public power development and water delivery system, the California State Water Project, which supplies 23 million people in California's water-scarce but populous southern region with drinking water. This involves miles of pipelines, tunnels and canals and includes carrying water 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains. It's the largest single user of energy in the state.

Then you have the fact that water is required in basically all forms of energy, and often energy development takes place in areas where water is scarce. Staying in California, we see this in Kern County, where much of the state's agriculture growth also takes place. The county always has been a big energy developer containing some of the top producing oil fields in the United States. Now fracking is is in the mix, too, and it consumes roughly 164,000 gallons of water per fracking well. This is common throughout the U.S. According to a Ceres report, nearly half of all fracking activities happen in water-stressed regions.

But coal is even worse. In a year, a typical coal plant can withdraw up to 180 billion gallons of water and consume up to 4 billion gallons. A 2013 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that water withdrawals would decrease by 80 percent and consumption by 40 percent if natural gas supplies 60 percent of U.S. power. This hardly would solve global water and energy challenges, however, because natural gas extraction is still water-intensive and happening in water stressed regions.

Implications of the nexus

These events unfolding around the world carry implications for the business-as-usual practices of global companies. Similar to how India's usage of its groundwater is unsustainable, the current practices of most companies aren't sustainable either. The changing dynamics of water, energy and food affect business operations thoroughly. A change in price or availability, for example, in one of these commodities affects a business from its factory floor to its corporate offices.

A recent study found that 60 percent of companies surveyed indicated water would negatively affect profitability and growth within the next five years. 80 percent of respondents said the resource will affect where companies locate facilities.

The drought that took hold of Texas in 2011 directly contributed to shuttered operations — such as a meat processing plant in Plainview — and job loss. It also prevented growth of the power sector despite significant demand for it in the state. There wasn't enough water available to ensure steady production of electricity. This instability in the energy sector prevented major businesses from locating there.

The water shortages that businesses in Texas struggle with are just one challenge companies face regarding the nexus. Businesses often share water sources with other actors outside of the sector such as farmers and local residents. And with multiple users often drawing from the same water source, what one does affects the other. Fertilizers from farming activities that pollute a watershed can render it unusable for other actions. Realizing that natural resources are shared can encourage competing demands to address the matter holistically at a landscape level.

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A landscape approach to the nexus also carries social implications for the local populations and perhaps beyond. For example, ecologically friendly farming practices that preserve a source of clean water for all users also provides sustainable livelihoods for local populations.

This potential sustainability is another aspect of the nexus. Nexus thinking can provide stability and promote political and economic security for societies while poor resource management can generate quite the opposite. Disagreements over water management in water-scarce regions such as the Middle East has led to conflicts between neighbors. In North Africa, for instance, Ethiopia is aiming for energy self-sufficiency with construction of the continent's largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile River. But the river is essentially a source of life for Egyptians — 83 million people rely on it for almost all of their water needs. Egyptian officials claim the nation will lose 20 percent to 30 percent of its Nile water and nearly a third of power generated from its own hydroelectric dam. Ethiopia hopes to finish the project by 2017 but in the meantime, relations between the two nations have soured. Egypt even threatens military action if dam construction isn't stopped.

This situation isn't new. Still within the Middle East, Iraq lost its once-ample supply of freshwater flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to Turkey when dams were constructed upstream.

The Middle East isn't the only region trying to grow its energy capacity. Other emerging economies in Africa and Asia are doing the same. Demand for energy is expected to rise 70 percent by 2035, according to a U.N. report on world water and energy. While bringing electricity to the 1.3 billion people who lack it is a positive, the report stated, the water required in the process isn't valued economically so its limitations are ignored. Sources are stressed and depleted. The report also predicts an increase in water resource-related conflicts unless integrated, or at least more innovative, approaches are adopted.

Nature and the nexus

With the political, social and economic implications of the water-energy-food nexus, it's easy to overlook the nexus' natural component. The nexus is part of nature. Each sector requires healthy ecosystems in order to function sustainably.

Ecosystem services that purify water and mitigate scarcity ease the severity of droughts and floods and make food and energy production more reliable. Incorporating nature into the nexus means integrating natural infrastructure such as mangroves and coral reefs, which protect coastal regions from hurricanes, into nexus management. Other examples of natural infrastructure that would benefit water, energy and food security include wetlands and floodplains that lower flood peaks and forests that filter and store water.

A report (PDF) by The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature encourages the integration of nature into infrastructure investment creating a mixed portfolio of both natural and gray infrastructure that complements each other. The report notes a combined system of green and gray solutions would deliver the best results in terms of cost-effectiveness, risk and sustainable development.

To demonstrate how well natural infrastructure can work, there is the famous example of New York City's conserving the forests and wetlands of Catskill watersheds in order to maintain water quality and ensure a clean drinking water supply for NYC residents.

Likewise, ignoring natural infrastructure and relying completely on engineered systems often results in unhealthy ecosystems with a low productivity rate of ecosystem services. Dams built in Nigeria's Komadugu Yobe Basin affected the flow of water downstream, reducing the flooding season farmers relied on to water their crops. Invasive weeds flourished, choking waterways and ruining pastoral and agricultural lands and fisheries. The dams were built to store water for agriculture and drinking purposes but investment in the project didn't materialize, leaving ecosystems degraded and a population vulnerable to food insecurity.

Solutions to nexus challenges

Integrating natural infrastructure into management of the nexus is one solution that can have a big impact on the sustainability of all three sectors.

Answers to the nexus challenge rely on efficiency and cross-sector collaboration at a landscape level. Solutions using a framework that encompasses these elements are being considered and implemented throughout the world.

In terms of efficiency, there have been solid attempts in all three sectors to increase its levels. Referring again to the UCS report on U.S. power production, the study highlights the importance of transitioning development toward more efficient water-smart techniques. If the U.S. were to follow a trajectory of water-smart power development, water withdrawals would decline by 97 percent by 2050 and consumption would be reduced by 85 percent, not to mention power sector carbon emissions would drop 90 percent below current levels. The technology and resources are available for this transition to happen.

These water-smart techniques the UCS supports include renewable energy. India, struggling with its overworked power grid, is also exploring renewables as one way to relieve some strain and increase efficiency. The government looks to swap groundwater pumps powered by diesel fuel and the outdated power system with solar water pumps. Farmers receive subsidies to buy the solar pumps and in exchange agree to practice water-saving drip irrigation.

Not only does the initiative in India mean less water used for energy, it also could mean less water for producing food. Efficiency in producing food is a necessary component of nexus solutions. Reducing waste and growing more food on already cultivated land are two steps National Geographic lays out for feeding Earth's rising population. An entire step focuses on efficient resource use highlighting techniques such as cover crops, mulching and composting, that build up nutrients in the soil and conserve water. Innovative technology grows in the food sector as well. Computerized tractors with GPS allow farmers to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides minimizing runoff into nearby waterways.

The private sector also is heavily involved in the spread of efficient and innovative solutions. The rising interest in natural capital among businesses is helping to guide nexus thinking along as more companies become aware of their dependence and risks regarding the natural world and begin to take action. Big companies such as AT&T and Hershey are making changes, upgrading outdated cooling systems and investing in conservation technology.

There is a gradual increase in companies addressing the nexus and managing their water risk. A recent report found that one in four watershed investment projects counted a business as a financial supporter. Companies are in partnerships with NGOs and governments over watershed protection and restoration activities, which address challenges on a large scale.

But further collaboration on this large scale level is needed in order to truly address and change the way society addresses its water use and energy and food production. And while change is often slow to happen, initial steps of understanding the water-energy-food nexus and coming to terms with the world's reliance on it can happen immediately.

This article originally appeared at Ecosystem Marketplace. Top image by Condor 36 via Shutterstock.