Water-Energy-Food nexus – what is it and how might it be approached at Rio+20?

In the latest of our Rio+20-themed blog posts (and the last before our competition winners travel out to the Earth Summit), our winner Ed, who will be sponsored by Northumbrian Water in Rio, looks at the Water-Energy-Food nexus (one that is particularly pertinent to NIReS) and where the balance should be between these three crucial natural resources.


Water-energy-food nexus – what is it and how might it be approached at Rio+20?

The Water-energy-food nexus (or other permutations) is increasingly finding itself in the public discourse surrounding development and sustainability. It is a concept that is easy to understand on the face of things, yet like a ball of wool unravels itself into a myriad of complex and dynamic relationships. In fact some have long studied some of the components in detail, such as water use for agriculture and use of crops for bioenergy. And yet despite the fact that these three resources are amongst the most important resources for human survival, the attention they have received as a single interdependent issue has been inadequate.

This is of interest to me in particular because my research is based around the water-energy nexus. Indeed, there is an aspect of food/agriculture in there too, which would be more prominent if the UK aimed to source all of its food from the UK … I digress.

But what about in other parts of the world? What about in China, where the south-north water transfer projects will move 44.8 billion cubic metres of water per year to support the growing agriculture and cities of the north? That’s 12 times the  domestic water supply of the UK! What about the projected consumption of 36 billion cubic metres of water per year just to extract coal?

It might therefore seem madness that we use huge amounts of water in the production of energy, lesser but sometimes large amounts of energy in the distribution and treatment of water, and huge amounts of both in order to support agriculture. With growing numbers of mouths to feed, water scarcity, fossil fuel depletion and rising energy prices one would hope there was a way of tackling all of these issues under one umbrella?

If one looks at the Rio+20 ‘Zero Draft’ document one might be relieved to see in the contents, Section V,A Priority/key/thematic/cross-sectoral issues and areas. Lo and behold the first three subtitled paragraphs of that section are indeed Food Security, Water, and Energy. But beyond that there is little acknowledgement of their fundamental relationships to one another.  More is addressed in the ‘UNCSD Issues Briefs’ that I read for Agriculture and Water (I couldn’t find the Energy one – does it exist? – if so please send it!), particularly the former where several innovative SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) have been proposed such as:

  • 20% increase in water efficiency in agriculture–more nutrition and crop per drop;
  • 70% of irrigated land using technology that increases crop per drop.

However, go back to the Water document and there are scant acknowledgements of agriculture and energy. Yes, it is more important that we provide access to over 1 billion people currently without safe drinking water and 2.5 billion without adequate sanitation, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t make much better use of our resources? In fact if we did, there might be more water, more energy, more food and more money to go around.

That’s not to say that there is a silver bullet for the water-energy-food nexus, but a joined up approach to using these resources more wisely would bring benefits that reach further than is immediately obvious. I’m hoping that a few of the side events at the conference will be successful therefore and I look forward to writing again about this issue.

For the meantime, here are a few more facts (UK perspective but widely applicable) to think about….

  • 5% of the UK’s domestic energy is used to heat water – save hot water, save energy
  • 4% of the UK’s electricity is used for public water supply and wastewater treatment – save water, save electricity
  • 38% of the England & Wales’ fresh non-tidal surface water is abstracted for the fossil fired electric power sector – save electricity, save water
  • 20-30% of food in the UK is thrown away – save food, save water, save energy

Lastly, for those of you who live more locally, why not order yourself a wonderful Water Saving Kit from my very kind sponsor Northumbrian Water (@NorthumbrianH2O)? They can help you save loads of water and energy, help NWL save carbon emissions and even save you money, particularly if  you are on a water meter. Best of all, they are free, easy to install and once in place you will hardly notice the difference! They make great birthday presents too!

If you want sources to the data or anything similar, send me a message through my Twitter account (link below) and I can find it for you, not much time right now. Next stop – RIO!

Ed Byers, PhD Civil Engineering and Geosciences

Twitter account: https://twitter.com/#!/EdwardByers

6 thoughts on “Water-Energy-Food nexus – what is it and how might it be approached at Rio+20?

  1. This proposed action addresses all the issues you raise:

    The solution to climate change

    The primary source of GHG is fossil fuel burning electrical generating facilities. http://dingo.care2.com/pictures/causes/uploads/2012/01/GHG-emitters-2010.jpg
    7 Billion humans generate vast quantities of excrement. I believe this excrement is capable of providing all human electrical demands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiolysis
    Right now hydrogen is perceived as a negative by product, of Nuclear Energy, when it should be the product, as the Pentagon has considered. reference info Request for Information (RFI) on Deployable Reactor Technologies … DARPA-SN-10-37@darpa.mil
    Large scale conversions sites are intended to replace fossil fuel powered electrical facilities the Primary Source of Carbon Emissions.
    In what officials now say was a mistaken strategy to reduce the waste’s volume, organic chemicals were added years ago which were being bombarded by radiation fields, resulting in unwanted hydrogen. The hydrogen was then emitted in huge releases that official studies call burps, causing “waste-bergs,” chunks of waste floating on the surface, to roll over.

    Dennis Baker
    106-998 Creston Avenue
    Penticton BC V2A1P9

  2. Dennis, Thanks for your comment and contribution.

    The energy in wastewater is indeed considerable (see Heidrich et al 20111, Environmental Science & Technology), although unlikely to be anywhere close to our entire energy needs, current or future.
    Nuclear power still requires water for the steam turbines and for cooling, consuming on average 400-1500 litre/MWh generated. This is a considerable amount making nuclear unsuitable for water-scarce locations.
    That said, there is a lot that can be done with harnessing the energy from waste products, and in the case of methane (that would come from human waste for example), all gas must be captured due to the high global warming potential.

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